Mar 29, 2011

A Family Outing--At the Cemetery?

Katherine Stauffer Lammay & Grandkids at Allegheny Cemetery
It may sound strange to some people to get everyone together for a family outing and spend it at the cemetery.  Unless you are genealogy and cemetery obsessed like myself, then it is completely normal!  It is not "normal" however for my husband's family who have had little interest in genealogy.  So I was quite surprised that a recent trip to Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh to visit my husband's family graves turned into just that.

It was quite common around the turn of the century for your ancestors to spend  their Sundays in a cemetery, even making a picnic out of the day, especially for working class people who lived in cities.  No, they were not morbid.   Cemeteries were many times the only open “green” spaces that these families had easy access to by local transportation such as streetcars.  They could enjoy a day in the “park” and pay their respects to deceased loved ones at the same time.  Many cemeteries were actually developed with this purpose in mind.  One of the first “rural cemeteries” as they were called was Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA.  You can check out their website, Allegheny Cemetery History, they have wonderful photos and a very interesting history. They also have an online database with all the people buried there.

Okay, history lesson over and back to MY family outing.  We planned a trip to Calvary because it had been ages since my husband visited the graves of his grandparents and some great aunts.  Plus I have started researching his family since his mother is getting up in years and thought now is a good time to gather his family information.  I was surprised when two of his sisters and his mother wanted to come along but was quite glad that they did.

We picked the worst day weather wise.  As soon as we reached the cemetery it began to rain.  Not just rain mind you, but pour.  Bless my mother-in-law's heart, she pushed on climbing muddy hills to show us where the graves were located.  This was no easy feat for her.  She is 80, uses a walker and oxygen. Now only a hard core genealogy and cemetery obsessed nut like myself can understand why it is perfectly acceptable to drag her mother-in-law, walker sinking into the mud with an oxygen tank hoisted over my shoulder to get family information!

Old Mumford Grave Stone at Calvary Cemetery
However it turned out to be not only a nice day with family, with my mother-in-law enjoying herself, but a successful genealogy trip as well.  I discovered there are 13 people buried in one of the plots we visited.  I found all my husband's great aunts, one set of great grandparents, and even a great, great grandmother!  I was dumbfounded to find all these people and even more dumbfounded to realize my mother-in-law knew all along they were buried in Calvary.  If we had not taken her there I don't think she would have ever told me.  All I could get out of her before out trip was "I know nothing about my mother's parents".  We stopped into the cemetery office after visiting the graves.  The staff was very nice to give me a print out of everyone in the plot along with burial dates.

I learned even more, interesting little facts, when we all went out to lunch after the cemetery.  Turns out my sister-in-law has developed an interest in genealogy and being the oldest remembers things that even my mother-in-law has either forgotten or become confused about. 

So what genealogy tips did I learn from my day at Calvary?
1.  It is helpful to take older family members with you if at all possible to cemeteries.  I believe the trip helped to refresh my mother-in-law's memory, plus she truly enjoyed the day out.  For whatever reason it never occurred to her to tell me her grandparents were buried there, I actually believe she forgot.  But when she saw the old tome stone (writing is now worn off) she said "Oh yea, that's the grandparents".
2.  It helps to interview family as a group.  It turns into a conversation, not an "interview" with each family member adding their perspective and jogging each others memory.
3.  Finally, I think the cemetery staff was more helpful because we converged on them as a group (or maybe they thought we were going to buy some more plots LOL).  Now I don't recommend ganging up on the staff at any cemetery, but hey, whatever helps.  The staff actually thought we were from out of town.  I mean why else would we all be there (especially my mother-in-law) on a Saturday in the pouring rain?  Obviously they were not genealogists!

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