Notes from a Graveyard Scholar

Ozark folklore is a recurring theme in my writing, and chasing down the old stories and tall tales has led me off the proverbial beaten path more than once. Sometimes, though, the stories fall right in my lap, as happened a few months ago when I attended the Books in Bloom Literary Festival and met Arkansas writer and independent researcher Abby Burnett.

Abby BurnettAbby has spent years researching death and burial customs, with much of that work presented in Gone to the Grave; Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850 – 1950, published by the University Press of Mississippi. Other publications include entries for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture as well as articles for county historical societies. She lives in a log cabin in the Boston Mountains when she’s not out photographing tombstones in rural cemeteries. Here’s Abby, talking about her research and the ways we remember the pets who shared our lives…

The worn image on the tombstone in Hot Springs’ Hollywood Cemetery, lit up by afternoon sunlight, is puzzling. Is it a lamb? No, a dog – definitely a dog. A quick check of Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, by Douglas Keister (Gibbs Smith, 2004) reveals the meaning: “The virtues of fidelity, loyalty, vigilance, and watchfulness have long been symbolized by man’s best friend.” Surely this was intended on the stone of B.B. Porter, who died at age 42 in 1882, but elsewhere across Arkansas, images of dogs found on modern granite markers don’t have the same meaning. “Nowadays when one sees a carved dog in a cemetery it is probably homage to a beloved pet,” Keister writes.

There is no lack of such homages in pet cemeteries, of course, where humans eulogize their beloved animals. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, here lies our little boy with ears of rust,” is the verse on the grave of Rusty Bucket Bumstead (1991 – 1994) in Rest Haven Cemetery, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Tributes to other dogs and cats include, “You left paw prints all over our hearts,” “Our ‘love sponge’” and “So loved, so loving, so missed.” In Friends of the Pet Cemetery, a considerably larger pet graveyard near Springfield, Missouri, are found these tributes: “He lived for love and food,” “Always a puppy” and, “Friend – Gentleman – Athlete.”

I spend a lot of time in cemeteries because I research and write about death and burial.  I transcribe epitaphs, photograph tombstones, and compile information on everything from the symbolism at the top of a stone to the name of the carver often found near the base. The most heartbreaking epitaphs, or poems, do not upset me but my outpouring of grief in pet cemeteries always catches me off guard.  After all, I live with four elderly dogs and two cats, volunteer at my county’s pet shelter, and serve on its board. Though I wouldn’t cross the street to admire a stranger’s baby, I just might dart across several lanes of traffic to pet a puppy.

This has led to a fascination with the way pets are portrayed on modern markers, ones for humans, that is. I’ve found artwork showing every dog breed imaginable, portraits or cartoons of pets, and dog and cat figurines placed on the markers. Most interesting of all are photoceramics, little disks imprinted with actual photographs then bonded to the front of a tombstone. Photoceramics were invented in France in 1854, and they’re rare in the Arkansas Ozarks’ oldest cemeteries. Perhaps they were too expensive, difficult to obtain, or easily broken. Some tombstones contain circular indentations, evidence of a vanished photoceramic. In modern times, however, these little photos are affordable, unbreakable and plentiful, so much so that some markers sport separate ones for each family member and the dog.

What to make of the photos people choose? One husband and wife’s marker contains a photo of each spouse holding up the same tiny Chihuahua. There’s the haunting photo of the young woman holding her cat against her shoulder, the girl’s face tinted a flesh color but the cat standing out in stark black and white. Though hunter and hound photos are plentiful, one man chose to use a shot of his three hounds treeing an unseen prey. One older photo shows a husband, wife, and dog where both the wife and the dog are leaning away from the beaming husband, as though afraid of him. (People who knew this family assure me that the man was not abusive but I don’t know why wife and dog look so wary.) Others are like hidden puzzles, where the pet is somewhere in the picture.

Occasionally a photoceramic will feature an unconventional pet. Brian Harness, buried in Maplewood Cemetery in Harrison, Arkansas is shown cradling a large fox. Given that Harness was a hunter and a professional taxidermist I thought he might be posing with an especially life-like example of his work. But no, an online obituary showed a different photo of the two, and mentioned that Mr. Harness was survived by his pet fox, Jasper. In this same cemetery a stone bench, at one side of the Johnson family plot, is decorated with a photo of a cow wearing a jaunty razorback-red beret with “Arkansas” knitted in. The most unusual creature is probably found in Hugo, Oklahoma, a town where various traveling circuses spent their winters. There a female snake-charmer is shown holding what appears to be a python with, “To each his own” carved above the frame.

Modern technology has made it possible to put anything – anything – on a tombstone: aerial photos, sonograms, NASCAR logos, the deceased Photo-shopped into a portrait with Jesus. Perhaps someday someone will study these images as seriously as I do study the meaning behind the Ozarks’ oldest symbols (anchors, clasping hands, broken columns). If so, those graveyard scholars will have to make sense of the large numbers of dogs and cats populating the tombstones of the people who loved them so much they considered them members of the family.

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Abby’s book was first published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2014 in hardcover, and is now available in paperback and Kindle editions as well. While she was researching the book, the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) featured her in AETN’s “Silent Storytellers” program. This documentary featured people and organizations “who are passionate about the preservation of cemeteries and memorials in Arkansas.” Here’s the clip:

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One thought on “Notes from a Graveyard Scholar

  1. Pingback: Gone to the Grave | Waterside Kennels Mysteries

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