Counting the Living and the Dead

A couple of months ago, I took on two new projects. I’m counting heads for the U.S. Census Bureau as a non-response follow-up enumerator, and I’m taking photographs of headstones for Find-A-Grave. The two jobs are remarkably similar; in both cases, I’m verifying that a location is occupied and recording who resides there. I decide which role to fulfill depending on whether or not I am more interested in getting paid or not having to talk to people. You can guess which option goes with which role.

I took an interest in both of these opportunities because I love records. I have used many, many old census records in my research, and was able to reconstruct entire neighborhoods for my Knoblock murder manuscript based on the 1920 census records for Coffey County, Kansas. I felt a sort of time-transcending kinship to the enumerators who recorded – by hand, just as I did – the basic statistics of each household they encountered. And now, for posterity, I record images of the markers of the dead, making them virtually available to anyone on the planet.


I fell in love with cemeteries when I was 24 years old. My fiance and I were strolling through Memorial Lawn/Maplewood Cemetery in Emporia, Kansas, a town with a (living) population of about 22,000 people and a large cemetery with a (dead) population of about 30,000 people. What I loved about that cemetery was the variety of monuments, and the fact that the entire town’s history was buried there. Spending the past few weekends puttering around with a camera, I had the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite monuments. They’re not the biggest, or the grandest, but they speak to me every time I see them.

A tiny little corner of the old Maplewood section of the cemetery is marked "Old Vets" on the cemetery map. Civil War vets, complete with their Grand Army of the Republic markers, rest in tidy rows at the top of a hill in the northeast corner of the cemetery.

Having grown up with generic, sterile mid-twentieth century cemeteries, I didn't appreciate the potential beauty that could be found until I saw Anna's stone. The finger pointing upward represents a soul moving on to heaven.

Wooden Marker

The person whose earthly remains remain here is unknown, but his (or her) marker tugs at my heart every time I see it. In a cemetery with more than 30,000 interments, this is the only wooden marker to have survived the passage of time and prairie fires.

The doughboy honored by this next marker isn’t even buried here, but ask anyone who has spent time walking around this cemetery which markers they remember, and the doughboy is always on the list. He’s long since lost his rifle, but he remains at attention long after the man he serves to memorialize stood at ease.

The dougboy's memorial.

Detail of the bronze doughboy.
Forever at attention.

Beautifully preserved, this monument's only enemy is lightning. Why? It's cast zinc. I have identified at least three of these monuments at Memorial Lawn/Maplewood. Their best feature is that they resonate like a bell if you tap them.

This wonderful art deco stone is tucked between two mature shrubs. Even Hercule Poirot would condescend to approve.

Tree stump stones were popular during the 19th century. Representing a life cut short, tree stumps were decorated with symbols representing the interred. In this case, we can see a banner proclaiming he was a Freemason, the Grand Army of the Republic emblem announcing he was a Civil War veteran. It is possible the five cut limbs represent his five decades of life, and the ferns surrounding the base represent his having found deeper meaning and truth, as ferns are only found in the darkest parts of the forest.


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