Monday, May 26, 2014
Memorial Day 2014
Over the past few months I have committed to a project that grew directly out of my interest in family history. One of the best way I have of locating relatives buried around the country is by searching the Find a Grave web site. I'm found dozens of people this way, complete with their dates of birth and death, their spouses, children, siblings, and often photos as well. I decided that I would pay it back by adding memorials for people in the oldest sections of Oak Hill cemetery here in Janesville.
Doing this involves going to the library and copying out listings for the cemetery from a book written by the local genealogy society, who walked the cemetery and searched the old card files which recorded all the burials, including numerous ones with no stones. But I also search census records and newspaper archives to fill out more about the people I record. Where were they born? What did they do for a living? Where did they live? Were they veterans? Now that the weather is good I also walk the cemetery and photograph headstones. This is a double check for the information on the memorials - dates sometimes were entered incorrectly, or names misspelled. But also, often the older monuments are beautiful on their own - all those headstones with clasped hands, willow trees, anchors, or little lambs, the monuments with maidens pointing to heaven, draped columns, and classical obelisks. It is a pleasure to photograph them and share them online.
Oak Hill has an old Gothic stone chapel that once served as a place for funeral services, but has fallen, in recent years, into disrepair. A group of local history and architecture enthusiasts stepped forward after the city proposed tearing down the building, and raised money to restore the chapel. I went to this group and suggested I lead a series of free informal walks in the cemetery this spring and summer, and then give people brochures describing how they can help in the chapel restoration project. They have been wonderfully enthusiastic and supportive of my project.
My first walk was May 10th, and nice publicity and fine weather led to a turnout of more than fifty people. The first walk featured the monuments of people who started Janesville businesses long ago, and whose businesses are still going strong. This photo is of the Gray family monument. They were Irish immigrants who came to Janesville and started a beverage company that made soda and beer, and still does.
I plan three more of these walks, and am having a good time planning the walks, though writing the scripts does take some time. But I think it's worth the effort to get people out walking in our beautiful and historic cemetery, familiarize them with a little bit of local history, and encourage them to support the restoration of a historic building. I also encourage people to create online memorials for people in their own families, using Find a Grave. My hope is that activities like this will encourage people to talk about their family history with their children, and to share information in a format that is widely accessible and easy to understand.
One thought. Through recording old burials and searching for headstones of veterans, I find many that are sadly neglected. Perhaps all the family members have passed away, or do not live near the cemetery. In Oak Hill there is a section for veterans, but many of graves of the men and women who served in the military are not located in the military section. It would be wonderful of folks would adopt these neglected graves, occasionally wipe them clean, add some flowers. It would be a fine and easy act of charity.