Cemetery visits are one of our favorite sight seeing activities. Not just any cemetery, mind you. We like the old ones, the older the better! I love reading the poetry on the old tombstones. For me, this fascination began in my early 20’s. Noelle here, by the way.
Actually, like many suburban teen girls, I became pretty interested in death in high school. It started when I grew a 25-pound ovarian tumor, which was discovered when I was 15. That’s fairly good-sized for anyone, but I only weighed 125 with the tumor, so for me it was pretty huge. Well, obviously, I survived that surgery, but it left me pondering death. Not exactly fixated, but not too far off either.
Cemetery Visits in my 20’s
Then in my early 20’s, I discovered a tiny cemetery outside the small town where I lived. There were four or five children, seems like they ranged from 8-15, who drowned on the same day in the early 1900s. Their graves were spread throughout the cemetery, each in their own family plots. They fascinated me, but it was before the days of internet so I never learned any more about them. I’m guessing it was a flood? But who knows? Anyway, right outside the fences was another grave. I can’t remember the details, but it was a man who died doing something bad, so he was buried outside the cemetery gates. I don’t even remember why I think he was a bad guy, maybe just local folklore. Some day I need to go back there, write down their names and do a little internet search!
Since that time, I’ve checked out old graveyards whenever I’ve had the chance. When I met Steve and learned that he also enjoyed this past time, well, it was one of many reasons to love him!
In 2019, we visited Abraham Lincoln’s grave in Springfield, Missouri. His Presidential Library is in the same city and is a real treat, but the Oakridge Cemetery is amazing. It’s in our top three favorites with huge family plots, extravagant headstones and tons of peppery poetry. Oakridge is the second most visited cemetery in the US, after Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington is beautiful in its own right, with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier being beautiful and incredibility humbling. We also visited a truly old cemetery in Paris some years back. Père Lachaise Cemetery is spectacular!
Cemetery Visits Natchez, Mississippi
After traveling down the West Coast and the Pacific Ocean, we headed to the Gulf Coast along Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Well mostly we just drove straight through Alabama, but I’m sure It’s gorgeous on it’s own.
Natchez, Mississippi (arguably now one of my favorite Southern cities) has a beautiful cemetery that was established in 1822. Massive live oak trees line the drive into the cemetery and are sprinkled throughout the grounds. The Visitor Center sells and/or rents a CD tour of the famous grave sites. Too bad we don’t own a CD player, so we were on our own. Luckily, earlier in the day of our visit, we toured the city with Rev, from Rev’s Country Tours, and he hit the “highlights” for us. If you find yourself in Natchez, we highly recommend taking Rev’s tour and also taking Miss Sally’s Open Air Tour. Both are well worth their cost, as you learn so much about the city and it’s history. We liked the combination of the tours as we learned from each of them, plus they go to different areas.
Our Natchez Cemetery visit took us to the beautiful statue of the Turning Angel. She overlooks the graves of five girls who died on March 18, 1904. They were employees of the Natchez Drug Company, which exploded. The devastated business owner purchased the lot for the girls and commissioned the angel to look over them. People say that if you drive by the cemetery at night, you can see the angel turn to look towards you. We didn’t experience that phenomena but it’s a neat thought.
Greg Isles, a native Natchez author, wrote a novel titled Turning Angel, in which the cemetery and statue both figure prominently.
William Johnson is one of a handful of African Americans buried in the older sections of the cemetery. He’s referred to as the Barber of Natchez, as he owned three barber shops, a bath house, a bookstore and land holdings. William was born a slave, but freed as a young boy, probably by his father/owner. He began a diary in 1835, which he continued for the rest of his life, giving so much insight into his life and the times in which he lived. William’s home became part of the Natchez Historical Park in 1990. Sadly, we didn’t get to go inside, because you know everything is closed due to Covid-19.
Florence Irene Ford
Another famous grave is that of Florence Irene Ford. She died of yellow fever at 10 years old in 1871. Legend has it that she was very afraid of the area’s thunderstorms. When she died, her mom had a casket made with a glass window at Florence’s head. Behind the grave, stairs were dug so Mom could get down to the child’s level. During storms, she’d descend the stairs and then cover herself and Florence with hinged metal doors. In the 1950’s the glass window was covered with concrete to protect it from vandals. Locals and tourists bring trinkets to Florence, I guess to comfort her during storms.
A non-famous but awesome headstone was one that lays over the entire grave of a two year old boy, who died in 1834. It says:
As a son, brother, friend beloved will your memory ever be green in our hearts, and long will your premature departure, draw a sigh from those who love. Leaves have their time to Fall and flowers to wither at The north wind's breath: And stars to set, but oh! Thou hast all seasons for thine Own O! Death.
And then there were these sweet beauties. The artistry is phenomenal!
Okay, this next grave resides in the “new section”, but I can’t say that we’ve seen a headstone quite like this. Perhaps the footer explains the right side of the double headstone.
Cemetery Visits: St. Michael’s, Pensacola, Florida
So we went to Florida, because everyone goes there during the winter. The snowbirds flock to Florida. Well let me just say that Florida’s panhandle is freezing in January. It wasn’t the very best of our cemetery visits, simply because of the weather. We visited on an overcast, windy day, bundled in multiple layers!
Here’s my favorite tombstone prose from St. Michael’s.
In memory of my dear wife, Maria L. Donaldson. Born March 12, 1826. Died June 4, 1860
Thine is a land of calm delight To sorrowing mortals given: There rapturous scenes enchant the sight And all to soothe their souls unite. For sweet is her rest in heaven. There glory beams on all the plains And joy for hope is given. There music swells in sweetness strains And spoiless barely ever reigns For all us love in heaven.
St Michael’s beauty
Cemetery Visits: Gautier, Mississippi
This small historic cemetery dates back to 1872, originally as a family graveyard. We visited this town, while staying at Shepherd State Park. We stayed for about a week, because great weather, beautiful private campground AND a local fisherman sold shrimp fresh out of the ocean! (Our camper may still be recovering from the shrimp smell!) This cemetery visit was quick, as it is small but it’s well-cared for and beautiful. My favorite tombstone stood in loving memory of David Saucier. He was born June 13, 1840 and died October 25, 1910. The headstone actually is one of those large slabs of concrete which covers the entire area of ground above the grave. I don’t see them so much in Northern states, but they are prevalent across the South.
Peaceful be thy silent slumber Peaceful in thy grave so low Thou no more will join our number Thou no more our song will know And again we hope to meet thee When the day of life is fled And in Heaven with joy to greet thee Where no farewell tears are shed
La Pointe-Kreb, Pascagoula, Mississippi
The La Pointe-Kreb House dates back to 1757 and is the oldest structure in Mississippi. The house itself is undergoing a major renovation, so we didn’t get to tour it. But that’s okay since we really went for the cemetery visit! The property sits on the Pascagoula River and has endured hurricanes and storms. Hurricane Katrina did major damage and the current restoration is the largest the site has undergone.
We felt obliged to visit the museum first, so this wasn’t our normal cemetery visit. But it turned out to be very informative and well worth our time. I read about Decilia McDaniel, born enslaved and freed at age 45, when she moved to Pascagoula with her husband. Interestingly enough, although she was a Pascagoula resident, I also read about her in the Natchez visitor center. Aunt Dicey, as she was known, died at 103, just two years after having her portrait painted.
After touring the property’s museum, we then headed out to the cemetery. All the old headstones and huge oak trees. Just beautiful! Many of the old headstones are written in French, which is interesting to us. On the Thursday before Halloween, you can take a guided cemetery tour. That just might be worth a trip back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Singing River
We wrapped up our cemetery visit with a walk along the Pascagoula River, also known as the Singing River. There are several versions of how it got that name. One is that Pascagoula warriors attacked Biloxi maidens on the wedding night of the chief’s daughter. A fight ensued, killing and wounding many of the Biloxi people. The rest walked into the river to drown rather than die at the hands of the Pascagoula warriors. The river sings as a death song of the brave. There are variations of the fight and the reason for it, which led the Biloxi peoples to walk into the water.
Another version of the Singing River’s naming
Another version of why the river sings surrounds a group of natives who lived on the river’s banks. Their ancestors worshipped a mermaid and they played music for a mermaid statue along the water’s edge. Around 1539 a man, probably a priest, came to their village and tried to convert them. During a night of a full moon, the mermaid came to the water’s edge and sang a song to the natives.
“Come to me, come to me, children of the sea. Neither bell, book nor cross will win ye from your queen.”
One after another the villagers walked into the river. The devastated priest heard a roar of laughter and then he died of grief. Supposedly if a priest now goes to the river on Christmas Eve and drops a crucifix into the water, the souls of the people will be redeemed.
Whether the singing is from the Biloxi or from the mermaid followers or perhaps from fish who make sounds, no one knows. Unfortunately, we did not hear the singing. The museum’s curator said that he has never heard it in all his years right there on the banks. The Singing River and a Halloween Cemetery Tour, oh yeah, the Mississippi Gulf wants us to return!
I hope you enjoyed our cemetery visits! The history, the beauty, the peacefulness and the questions all draw us in. Check out our video this coming Friday with more about our tours. We amuse ourselves. 🙂