Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
– William Wordsworth
– William Wordsworth
This featured memorial is about Hugh Emmerson who is buried in Sultan City Cemetery, in Snohomish County, Washington. When we visited this cemetery it was overgrown with an overwhelming number of dandelions which left yellow marks on the bottom of our pants (which luckily came off after a good wash). But the first thing that caught my eye as soon as I stepped off the road was a large ornate headstone sticking up from the sea of dandelions…
What struck me the most about this headstone was the epitaph written near the bottom:
His friends and kindred all unknown, he died as he had lived; alone.
Of course, being the person that I am, this made me want to learn more about him. Who was Hugh Emmerson? Who were his friends and kindred? Why were they unknown? Why did he move across the country in 1876 and who had bought such a large ornate headstone for him?
My first thought was that Hugh had travelled to Washington by himself and made a large impression on the city that he finally settled in. No-one knew him before he arrived in Washington, so they hadn’t met his family or prior friends, but he did something, something that made the people of Sultan care so much about him that they erected a large headstone to remember him. The problem with this idea was that according to his poetic epitaph, his friends were still unknown. Wouldn’t the people of Sultan now be his friends?
Another idea I had was maybe he was a criminal. He travelled quite far to escape his prior life, and lived as a hermit “died as he had lived; alone” until the end of his days. But what about that headstone? Even the simplest of headstones are very expensive, and this one was pretty ornate for someone who lived as a hermit with no friends or family.
As soon as I returned home, I set out to find more information about Hugh. I exhausted every avenue I could think of to learn more about him. I searched public records, Ancestry.com, old newspapers, even took a peek at the FindAGrave profile someone had already created for him.
I would like to say that after such an exhaustive search I learned all about him, that I found his “unknown” kin, and deciphered the puzzle of who bought the headstone, and why he would travel to the other side of the country at the (estimated) age of 54. But I didn’t.
What I did find, is that I couldn’t find any record of Hugh before he moved to Washington. He is recorded as living in Snohomish County in the U.S. Census of 1880, and the Snohomish County Census’ of 1883 and 1889, but no earlier. To confuse the matter more, his birthplace is recorded in one census as “New York” and just a few years later as “Vermont”.
This in itself I realize could be very telling. I imagine that in the late 1800’s it was rather easy for someone to change their entire life; their name, where they were born, where they lived. Maybe Hugh was running from something, maybe he changed his name and fudged his birthplace to gain anonymity so that he could live the last years of his life the way he wanted; alone.
There is still the question of that headstone. One possibility is that the people of the area, not knowing who to give his final possessions or money to, had used them to purchase the headstone. I wonder how Hugh would feel about this if he knew. A man who seemed to have wanted to spend the last years of his life quietly and without companionship, is memorialized with such an elaborate headstone and poetic memorable epitaph.
I know I won’t soon forget him and will continue to search for his story.
Have you ever gone to a cemetery and noticed that something was missing? Most people think that grave robbing is digging up a grave to take jewelry and money left with the deceased, but these days grave robbers have begun taking something much easier to get than items buried six feet under: bronze vases.
But why would people want to take them?
The most commonly understood reason for stealing cemetery vases is to sell them to scrap metal dealers for quick cash. Many cemetery vases are made of bronze and copper, valuable metals on the black market.
The people who steal these vases are drug addicts looking for a quick fix, or people so down on their luck that even robbing the dead is not below them. The thief, or thieves, will sometimes steal dozens of vases in a night, or even hundreds over a weekend. These vases can be sold to scrap metal yards for approximately $5-$15 a piece, which is a fraction of their original cost of $200 – $500 a piece.
But many cemeteries are fighting back against grave robbers and taking measures to prevent bronze vase theft, or at the very least to identify the vases if recovered.
Some cemeteries will etch the name of the cemetery and the name of the deceased onto the bottom of the vase so that it can be returned to its proper spot if recovered, and in some cases chains have been added to the vases that attach them to the headstone they belong with.
Certain cemeteries have gone as far as to hire security guards to patrol the grounds regularly, or have even questioned visitors to the cemetery regarding the theft.
While visiting a cemetery in Washington state earlier this year, I noticed a vehicle with a large “security” label parked near the mausoleum. When I asked, I was told by cemetery workers that this vehicle was parked there in response to recent theft and vandalism. This appeared to be strictly a visual deterrent as there were never actually any security guards around.
However, the most effective form of prevention has been simply utilizing vases that are made of materials that are less appealing to scrap metal dealers, and by extension, vase thieves.
You might be surprised at who else might have taken the vases home: the families. Some people have gone as far as to take home vases from the graves of their loved ones to prevent them from being stolen. And some people don’t buy vases, or want vases for their own graves because of their experiences with a stolen vase.
When a vase is stolen, it can feel like a part of your loved one is missing. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it is to walk up to a loved one’s grave with flowers in hand, only to find that there’s no longer a vase to put them in.
Many cemeteries will not pay to replace the stolen vase, as it is considered personal property, meaning the deceased who no longer have living family members may lose their vase forever.
It has always been a dream of mine to start a non-profit to help people in need buy headstones for their loved ones. After learning about these thefts, I am also determined to help families replace the vases lost to these modern grave robbers.
These vases were meant to put flowers in, to show respect for the person buried there, not to be melted down and sold for pennies on the dollar.
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
– Mary Elizabeth Fry
Symbols are fascinating to me because they give me a glimpse into the interests of the deceased. I always wonder what made the family pick that particular symbol, and what special meaning it holds for the person buried there.
I have come across countless symbols while exploring cemeteries. They come in many designs, and can be related to the deceased’s interests, such as soccer balls, bicycles, cats, etc., or they can be related to beliefs, religions, or organizations the person belonged to.
While touring cemeteries on a recent trip to Washington, I noticed one particular symbol on many headstones. The symbol looked to me like three rings joined together or a three-link chain.
I knew the links must stand for something important since so many headstones were adorned with them. At first I wasn’t sure if they were a representation of the Masons or another organization. But I did want to find out! As it turns out they may both be true.
I did some research and I found out that the three-link chain, sometimes with three initials, F, L, and T, signifying Friendship, Love and Truth, is the most widely encountered symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Because of this widely used symbol Odd Fellows have become known as “The Three Link Fraternity”.
The three links symbolize the chain that binds members together and the belief that communities, townships, counties and nations are strongest when joined together. In fact, the members of the Odd Fellows have been said to band together to help the poor have decent burials.
There is no doubt the members of the Odd Fellows were very proud of the work they did in their communities. It’s no wonder the three-link-chain is proudly displayed on so many headstones.
The odd fellows are sometimes called “the poor man’s Freemasonry,” since the organization shares many of the symbols of the Freemasons.
Sometimes the chain can be seen alongside the sign of the Freemasons, the square and compass. In these instances, some believe that the three link chain is a Freemason symbol of “the eternal cable tow between brothers”.
There isn’t much evidence for this however and I think the most likely explanation for the two symbols adorning the same headstone is that the deceased was a member of both organizations.
While researching the meaning and history behind the three links, I ran across another interesting piece of history that I could not resist adding here.
It seems that in the southern United States many graves are marked with chains of one, two or three links. I found many explanations for the different number of links. Some suggest that the number of links represent the length of time spent in slavery, or whether the deceased died a slave. Another explanation is that the chain simply represents that the person buried there was a slave. And some have even claimed that the slaves were secret members of the Odd Fellows.
There are many varying opinions but the consensus seems to be that the chain whether it be one, two, or three links hanging from the headstone represents that the person buried there was a slave.
I find it a very interesting contrast that while the three link chain symbolizing the Odd Fellows is a symbol of pride one holds in a fraternity they joined, another type of three link chain is the kind that represents being forced into slavery.