Cemetery Stories and Surprises

Several years ago my husband and I visited my elderly relative, Per Moen, in Norway. I expected he’d take us to his home. We had limited time, and Per surprised us by taking us to a cemetery instead. Country and family are important to Per. Although Per spoke English, he said little while he showed me his burial plot near relatives. I could tell that it was important to him to be buried in his homeland, within sight of his church, and near other family members. Although I’ll probably never visit that cemetery again, I won’t forget the surprising rush of emotions. I experienced a powerful sense of family, gratitude for the ability to share this moment, and sadness knowing that we would soon need to part.

I have also been surprised while visiting other cemeteries. When my husband and I toured Arlington National Cemetery, I expected to feel emotional while viewing the seemingly endless white headstones. But I hadn’t expected the flood of memories and feelings while viewing John F. Kennedy’s grave. I thought back to how he created the Peace Corps, which allowed our daughter to volunteer in Africa. Seeing his grave also reminded me of the fateful day when I was on the playground at my elementary school and heard the news that he had been shot. I was nine at the time and his assassination changed me, our nation, and the world. 

I recently visited with Bob Hall, the caretaker of the Wisconsin Dells Spring Grove cemetery. He shared the story of a man who surprised him with an unusual request. The older man explained that he had undergone a transplant and that, according to his religious beliefs, it was important for him to be buried with this body part at the time of his death. He held out a plastic bag. Inside was the man’s heart.

After Bob recovered from the surprise, he got a shovel and together they walked to the man’s plot. While Bob dug a deep hole, they discussed how, after the man's death, someone would retrieve and place the bag in the coffin.

Several years later, the man passed away. With his coffin near the man’s plot, Bob dug into the ground. He uncovered the heart and respectfully tucked it into the coffin, glad he’d been able to fulfill the man’s wishes.

Surprises also occur when people ask Bob to check cemetery records. Recently, a man asked Bob if Princess Nadonis Shawa was buried in Spring Grove. If you’ve ever hiked the portion of Lake Delton’s Mirror Lake that includes Fern Dell, you may have seen the historic plaques. One honors Princess Nadonis Shawa and shows the former location of her log cabin. The plaque says, “One of the most intriguing characters of Fern Dell was Princess Nadonis Shawa. Born Rebecca Louise Alston and married to the famous baritone singer and songwriter Harry T. Burleigh, she assumed the persona of Princess Nadonis Shawa as a performer and eventually her entire identity.” It explains she purchased her log cabin at Fern Dell in 1920. The land behind the plaque shows a clearing where the cabin once stood. The princess had performed in various circuits and educational traveling shows as a poetess and Indian storyteller.

Bob checked his records and found that the princess was buried in Spring Grove under her real name. Surprisingly, there is nothing to mark her grave. Plans are underway to change that.

Cemeteries are a sacred collection of life stories, cultures, and traditions. They provide a serene space for those who wish to grieve and remember a loved one. When you visit one, you should be prepared. Cemeteries are also full of surprises.

2 Replies to “Cemetery Stories and Surprises”

Debbie Gille

Thank you for this story Amy. I love walking through old Cemeteries. It is as if “there is so much to see/say” . Hard to put into words, but it is very moving and you wonder about the stories behind the families. Thanks again

Ah, Deb. We are kindred spirits. 🙂

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