Yesterday was a long, weird day.
I did not get my Louis Tuesday done.
I’m doing it now.
You can take off half the points if you want. At this point it really doesn’t matter. I’m in the hole in most domains of my life. Blogging may as well join the group.
So I’ve always liked this bit from Louis, mainly because it’s true for me as well. And I’m sure for a lot of girls. And boys. The unpopular in childhood and young adulthood become more attractive as they age.
“Even when they’re single moms with two kids,” she kept telling herself hoping that she could make it true by sheer vicious repetition.
I also went on a bit of a cemetery tour with Alex Watkins, a local historian, with whom I graduated from high school, actually. Alex is cool. He knows fun stories and he tells them well. I dig it. He also runs an antique shop with his parents where I’m going to buy a set of blue willow dishes because my grandmother had blue willow and I feel a connection to the pattern.
The first stop on our ongoing local history tour was Oakland Cemetery. Founded in 1865, Oakland’s headstones and vaults are basically a who’s who of notable Warrenites. Alex talked about how the Victorians used to picnic in cemeteries and used it as a well-visited place to both honor the memory of dead loved ones and create new family memories by spending time together at a grave. It wasn’t weird or taboo. “They didn’t have all that association” with death and the cemetery that we have today, Alex explained.
While there were strict rules about how to remove a dead loved one from the home (feet first, y’all), how to dress during mourning, how long to mourn, how to proceed from the funeral to the burial ground, and how to do just about everything related to death and mourning “properly,” there wasn’t the clinicalization and sanitation of the event that there is today. Embalming was often performed in the deceased’s kitchen or bedroom (after the doctor had been ’round to ensure that the dead was actually dead thanks to the whole buried alive, bells on the fingers and toes scare of the 18th and 19th centuries). Bodies were laid out on a block of ice (concealed, of course, like the mirrors and the family photos) in the parlor and mourners were received right there at home.
I’ve always loved the idea of the traditional Irish wake. Basically anyone who knew the deceased or knew the family, friends, or associates of the deceased, attended a wake unless it was specifically listed as “private” in the death notice. Children typically didn’t attend, which is probably why they sound like they were so much fun.
As much fun as you can have with a dead body in the parlor, that is.
I’m not trying to be disrespectful. Obviously, the wake was a time of mourning but the community of it, the gathering and the intimacy involved from relatives and non-relatives alike, I love that. I love that grief was not privatized and made “unmentionable.” I don’t like the current American stiff-upper-lip traditions of quietly mourning for a day or two until paid bereavement leave ends and then never speaking of our grief again. I like that permission was given to get down and dirty with the grief experience. I like that it was a community event. I like that it was a social happening.
And that’s what I mean when I say that there wasn’t all the “associations” we have now. I just mean that death – more importantly, grief – wasn’t hushed and family and friends weren’t relegated to visiting the grave during holidays for a quick placement of flowers or wreaths. It was acceptable to both grieve and celebrate at the same time, and long after a death occurred.
Anyhow, there are some cool graves at Oakland. Not only are there some stunning examples of ornate headstones – truly masterful sculptures that depicted the age, personality, and unique traits of the deceased. There is also, a short walk up the hill from the upper corner of the main cemetery, “Potter’s Field,” where people with no money for “proper” funerary and burial services were buried, as well as the remains of those originally buried in a cemetery on Fifth and East Streets in downtown Warren, where remains were disinterred when the land was subdivided and developed for housing in the 19th century. Those remains were taken en masse, often without knowing whose they were or much attention paid to keeping everyone’s bits and pieces together, according to Alex. In Potter’s Field, four rows of burial space represent those in Warren who were buried on the cheap or after being moved from downtown. Most of the graves are mass graves, with many people buried together – another pretty significant taboo.
Laura Fitch, Oakland’s office administrator, sent me the manifest of everyone known to be buried in Potter’s Field as of today. It reads:
#1 – Nash, Lester W.; Needinger, E.H. (child of); Larry, Mrs. Minnie (child of); Kinney, Child of Iva; Johnson, Child of John E.; Indian’s Grave; Hotelling, Child of Florence; Haggerty, Ed; Daley, Ed Floyd; Vitto, Andrew; Vestling, Daughter of Flora; #2 – Unknown Child; Schrumb, Child of Fred; Schrumb, Mrs. Fred; Piscerno, Joe; Perrone, Peter; Payne, Infant of Orrin; Nolan, William; Child found in creek; Child’s grave; Albaugh, Vilva (child of); Adamson, John; #3 – Baby Wooster; Unknown man found in river near Irvington (No supposed to be Glade Wood); Howard, Charles (colored); Stratton, Warren (colored); Unknown Infant; Johnson, Eric (Killed by auto on Sheffield Highway); Unknown man found in woods near Sheffield, Pa.; Donohue, James; Rinfrette, Prosper ( Found in Allegheny River at Warren); Hurd, Della (Died at State Hospital, North Warren, Pa.); #4 – Pool, Infant of Edgar – Marian Jan. 1931; Unknown man about 55 years old found in river at Hemlock; Johnson, Oscar Ne. August March 26, 1937; Seeley, Elmer July 30, 1937; Hamblin, Infant of Fred May 2, 1941; #1933 Robinson, Child of Jesse 11-12-1907; #5 – Children’s Aid Society Warren, Pa. lot 12, 13, 14, & 15 Section 38 (upper part of section 4) towards hill (diagram on other side of card) Mowris, Baby; Fisher, Baby Rose; Day, Baby; Carlson, Child of Caroline; Durnelle, Inf. of Belle 11-15-32; #6 – Borough Lot (Potter’s Field) Seeley, Arthur; Rasmusson, James – child of 2 stillborn 06/07/1902; Gibland, Fred; Child’s grave; Payne, Orrin.”
I’m hoping to have Alex take me to all of the sites discussed on Strange Kinzua, which is a local Facebook group dedicated to paranormal places and happenings in Warren. While I’m not super skeptical I don’t believe in anything science can’t explain. I’m agnostic. I like to explore the possibility of things but I reserve my belief in them for that which can be replicated and verified scientifically. But the connection between ghost stories and history is unmistakable. Alex is more a historian than a ghost story fanatic, which I like, and which is why I’ve chosen him to act as my guide. He knows the ghost stories and can relate them, but he knows his history and is an impressive folklorist. There’s lots to learn from him. Any of the “strange” sites we visit will be written about here.