Cemeteries are spooky places at night, but in the daytime, poignancy prevails. As you walk among the graves and headstones, names and epitaphs call out to you, saying “Remember me” or “I was once alive like you.” The words that remain on the markers offer the briefest synopsis of a life that may have been long and fruitful, or perhaps recall the life of a child cut short.
Most people venture into a cemetery for a reason: to honor a loved one who has passed. But some folks explore cemeteries simply because they enjoy their tranquil beauty. Then there are the artists and storytellers who find inspiration among the symbols and statuary. Finally, there are historians among us who want to preserve these tangible links to the past.
Let’s meet three Tidewater women who, along with a handful of others, volunteer for the Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation. They devote energy and effort to keeping Norfolk’s graveyards alive.
Local historian and NSCC board member Cheryl Copper says visiting a cemetery is like stepping into a sanctuary and believes cemeteries are to be enjoyed. “People used to come in and enjoy the cemeteries like a park,” she said. “Today it’s different. Today when you die, it’s as if it’s regarded as a failure of science and medicine. We have this sense of immortality. That’s not healthy.”
“The reason I love cemeteries is because I love history,” continued Cheryl. “I think that life is so much more than a dash between two dates on a tombstone. Cemeteries help us get in touch with our humanity, and we appreciate life more when we learn about those that came before us.”
Cheryl, who recently retired after working as a public servant for 29 years, has been leading tours for NSCC for 3 years. She believes cemeteries can be a place of lightheartedness. “You’ll sometimes see gravestone humor that makes you laugh out loud,” said Cheryl. She likes reading epitaphs because they also make you think. “Like a tombstone that says, ‘As you are now, so once was I’—that’s thought provoking,” she said.
In Elmwood Cemetery, a family plot features a unique tree trunk headstone, complete with detailed bark and severed branches with dates. Neatly surrounding the trunk are individual head stones made to look like perfectly cut logs, emblazoned with “Mother,” “Father,” and so on. Tidy blankets of ivy cover many graves, intended to keep the dead warm and cozy as they “nap.”
As unique as the headstones are the stories of those who lie beneath them. Like that of Rosina Vieth, a self-made millionaire who, after emigrating from Germany, ran her own successful confectionary factory in Norfolk. Another interesting story is Professor Odend’hal, whose stone claims he was a secretary to the Marquis de Lafayette, but facts don’t bear this out.
Others buried in Norfolk’s historic cemeteries include the descendants of Moses and Eliza Myers, the city’s first permanent Jewish residents. They arrived right after the American Revolution when Norfolk was recovering from war and lived in a historic house that’s now part of the Chrysler Museum of Art. To Cheryl, Moses and Eliza and their twelve children represented “new beginnings and America as it grew [and became] an independent nation.”
Stories abound in cemeteries if you take the time to do a bit of research. Another option is to take a tour with someone like Cheryl, who has spent countless hours poring over historical documents and learning about the people buried in Norfolk’s cemeteries. She even wrote her Master’s thesis about how cemeteries reflect the societies that build them.
During a recent tour of Cedar Grove Cemetery, Cheryl approached the grave of Elizabeth Hening, who died after a short illness in 1853 at 33 years old. She was married to a preacher and, remarkably, had been a missionary to Africa, an uncommon calling for a woman of her time.
Nearby in the Southgate family plot, an unusual stone appears to embrace two other stones, a poignant symbol for the death of triplets who died within one month in 1847. According to Cheryl, the children’s father had been teaching at a college in Georgetown, Kentucky. Her research revealed that the family ended up here in Norfolk due to Kentucky’s “unhealthy environment,” and Cheryl thinks the triplets passed away from an illness related to this.
Cheryl, who recently bought a home in Richmond, will be working on a book about the Moses Myers family and plans to continue studying history and historic cemeteries. She loves how cemeteries bring people together. It’s a “wonderful synergy that happens when people get together who love history, an amazing dialogue that goes back and forth,” she said, “and you kind of feed each other that way.”
NORFOLK'S EARLIEST RESIDENTS
Like Cheryl, Donna Groot Bluemink, researcher and founding board member of NSCC, has also delved deeply into Norfolk’s cemeteries and uncovered stories of the people buried there. Originally from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Donna now lives on the Lafayette River with her husband.
When Donna first came to Norfolk, she worked in the history room for Norfolk Library, editing historic images. She was also a file manager with USGW archives for Pennsylvania and Virginia, and she transcribed a lot of historic works. For instance, she put some of Captain John Smith’s writings online. After leaving the library, she became an administrative volunteer for the Norfolk Bureau of Cemeteries and began researching each burial in Norfolk’s four oldest cemeteries, a task that will take a lifetime, she says with a laugh.
Norfolk’s internment database lists everyone who is buried in the city’s cemeteries, but some listings only include a name and death date. That is until Donna gleans information from records she finds and fills in the rest. By the time her work is done, the listing might include the birthplace and date, place of residence, marriage records, organizations the person belonged to, military orders, and place of death, so that each listing is no longer just a name but a real person.
Donna stopped at a small stone for a Confederate soldier that sits beneath a tree and recalled a small but dignified ceremony that the Sons of the Confederacy had given him recently. She explains that their group is quiet right now, not wanting to attract any negative attention. It’s easy to imagine them standing beneath the tree, honoring this young soldier.
In West Point Cemetery, Norfolk’s oldest African American cemetery, a life-sized bronze statue bears the likeness of Union hero Sergeant William Harvey Carney and honors all war veterans. Sergeant Carney, a Norfolk native and the first black Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, heroically kept his regimental flag aloft until handing it off to his comrades, despite the fact that he had been shot. The movie Glory, which features Denzel Washington, was inspired by Sgt. Carney’s regiment.
Donna has been with the NSCC since its inception in 2013. She enjoys bringing historic information to the forefront, especially when it relates to Norfolk’s earliest residents. “These people have no one seeking them, yet they were a part of the community and were the backbone of Norfolk’s history,” Donna explained. “They weren’t prominent, but yet they were workers. Many of them were international or military.”
Last November, Donna was responsible for the placement of a Yellow Fever monument in Elmwood Cemetery to honor Norfolk residents who fell victim to the fever. Currently she’s researching the lives of people who are buried in the cemeteries. She talks excitedly about a woman reportedly buried in the LeKies Mausoleum near the back of Elmwood. A beautiful building with pointed arches and swooping buttresses, the mausoleum stands off by itself. Wrought iron bars protect a stained glass window.
Inside a woman from Philadelphia is supposedly buried, but there are conflicting claims that her body was reinterred in a graveyard in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the key to the mausoleum has been lost, so the location of the woman’s remains is unknown. “I want to see if she’s there,” said Donna.
THE RIGHT SPOT
The following Tuesday the NSCC board meets. Sitting at the head of the table is Diana Ramsey, NSCC president. After raising her family and founding a non-profit in California, Diana and her husband moved to Norfolk in 2005.
“When I moved here, I didn’t have a niche,” she explained. “I’ve been volunteering since I was sixteen years old, finding that right spot.” That spot turned out to be NSCC. Diana is also the president of the Friends of False Cape State Park, which also has a historic cemetery. The park is along the Atlantic Coast near North Carolina’s border.
Like Donna, Diana is a nature lover and says she and her husband became involved with Norfolk’s cemeteries after going on a Tour of the Trees at Elm-wood, where they met John Dill, the operation manager of Norfolk’s eight cemeteries. They were impressed with the work he was doing.
John offered to help Diana restore the historic cemetery at False Cape, which is nestled beside a dune, shaded by live oaks dripping in Spanish moss. It was the original site of the Wash Woods community. All that remains today is an old steeple of a quaint church and the surprisingly legible old gravestones. Diana, John, and a group of False Cape volunteers worked together to restore the stones and bring the mysterious, beautiful graveyard back to life.
Diana says she enjoys working in cemeteries because it shows respect for our fellow human beings who have passed on. “Many people who are buried in Elmwood probably no longer have relatives to keep up their plots,” said Diana, who gets satisfaction from repairing gravestones that have either been distressed or been in ruins for a century or more. She explains that stones and the grounds themselves suffer due to vandalism, weather, and settling. “Bringing those [stones] back to their natural positions” is very rewarding, she said.
Diana details some of the items she has found left behind in Norfolk’s cemeteries, including clothes, books, and an old film canister containing stills belonging to the city library. For three years Diana and a team of volunteers have been going to Cedar Grove every Thursday, setting stones, cleaning, and landscaping, weather permitting. Diana is especially thankful for the military community who have joined in and helped NSCC restore this beautiful, historic cemetery. Now that Cedar Grove is pretty much finished, she is eager to cross the street to Elmwood and focus the group’s attentions there.
Cemeteries offer a link between the past and the future. Whether you choose to stroll among the graves of Norfolk’s cemeteries at your leisure, take a tour, or become a volunteer, you just might hear the voices of the people buried there and hear their stories.
For more information, visit www.norfolksocietyforcemeteryconservation.org.
Check out these events and ways to get involved:
• History, Mystery, Mayhem and Murder Tours will be held October 20 & 27, 2017 from 5:30-7 p.m at Elmwood Cemetery.
• From Here to Eternity: Run like a Victorian, a 5K fundraiser, will be held Oct. 21, 2017 at Elmwood Cemetery. Check in is 3:30-4:30 p.m. race @ 5 p.m. Costume contests for best steampunk/Victorian-era outfits. Volunteers needed.
• Day of the Dead party, a fundraiser for NSCC, will be held on Nov. 1, 2017 at MJ’s Tavern, 4019 Granby St. Costumes encouraged.
• Volunteer on Thursdays - 8 a.m.-Noon. Help trim trees and scrub stones.
• Read Kelly Fish’s blog on the cemeteries at norfolksocietyforcemeteryconservation.wordpress.com
• Find people in Norfolk’s Cemeteries at www.usgwarchives.net/va/norfolkcity/norfolkcitycem.html
• Become a member of NSCC.
• Donate to NSCC.
• Buy the Lionel Brown-Grover Franklin historic map of Norfolk. Proceeds from the sales support NSCC, send a text to Cheryl Copper at 757-621-3710.
Lisa Bowditch contributed to this article.