People often shy away from graveyards, but I’m different. I’ve spent many an afternoon meandering through pioneer cemeteries in California’s Gold Country where I live.
Since I write historical romance novels set in the area, I find cemeteries to be a source of information as well as inspiration. Where else can you find so many poetic testimonies to love all in one place?
The moving inscription on the headstone above, written for 19-year-old Elizabeth by either her grieving husband or one of the many headstone verse writers of the time, reads:
There’s a void, a painfull void
That nothing here can fill
T’was God’s decree let me forbear
To murmur at his will.
As I amble through the oak-studded grounds of a pioneer cemetery, I’m transported to the past. The brave folk of yesteryear come to life in my fertile imagination. Through the words their loved ones had etched on their headstones, I learn about the hearts and souls of those who helped settle the Golden State. Story ideas run through my mind like the gentle breezes rustling the leaves overhead.
One of the things that strikes me when I stroll through the cemeteries is the fact that the pioneers didn’t just note how many years a person had lived on the headstones. Often they included the months and days as well, proving they valued each day greatly.
Being a member of the Weepy Women’s Club, I tear up when I read some of the poignant inscriptions. The hardest to bear are the ones written or commissioned by parents who lost a child at a young age. Without the benefit of the vaccines and medications we have today, disease often swept through towns, claiming the lives of many. It’s heartrending to come across headstones such as the one below, which marks the gravesite of two children from one family.
A headstone conveys several aspects of a person’s life. I’ve seen many that mention the deceased’s country of origin, such as the one for C. D. Augusta above. They pioneers survived long, arduous journeys to reach the West, but their ties to the countries or states from which they’d come were strong.
A person’s faith was often evidenced, both in the verses as well as the symbols. On Augusta’s headstone, a finger points heavenward as well as to the words, “Gone to rest.” The parents who lost their two sons had two lambs carved into the stone. Affiliations to the Masons or other fraternal organizations were noted at times, too.
Social status was also conveyed. Those with money could afford marble slabs or even obelisks, such as the one pictured above. Others opted for less expensive concrete. Saddest of all are the simple wood planks that have all but rotted away over the past century and a half. I imagine those to be graves of miners who died with little to nothing after having come to California in search of the fortunes that never materialized.
I took the photographs in this post during a trek through the cemetery in the Gold Rush-era town of El Dorado, California, in which my debut novel is set. I used facts gleaned that day in the story, which add to the emotional depth and authenticity.
Death was an inescapable part of life during the 1800s. Our ancestors dealt with it differently than we do. We tend to gloss over a loss and move on as quickly as possible. The Victorians didn’t. They mourned deeply and openly, having what we today would almost classify as obsessive and unhealthy methods for grieving. At times I think their ways of handling loss, although perhaps overdone by our thinking, might have helped them deal with the darker side of life, which they saw on a regular basis.
One thing is certain. Our ancestors loved deeply and left a tremendous legacy.
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Have you ever gone “on location” to do research for a story?
Do you avoid cemeteries, or do you find them a fascinating tie to the past?
Do you have tales from your ancestors that you’d love to put into a story one day?