8 Fascinating Stories Behind Cemetery Headstones

1A tombstone found under a San Francisco home reveals a family's secrets

A team of electricians working near a San Francisco home in August 2017 was shocked to find a 155-year old-tombstone, documenting the lives and deaths of three San Franciscans—Charles Cooper, Catherine Ryan, and their infant son, William Henry.

An 1862 San Francisco city directory revealed one Charles Cooper, whose occupation was listed as "ice cart," indicating that he made deliveries to wealthy residents looking for ice to cool their perishables. A year later, he was listed as working as a "teamster," a general term for someone who drives a team of horses or oxen.

He buried his first wife around that time and his newborn son just a few days later. The loss affected him deeply, so much so that despite marrying again, when Charles passed away at the age of 69, he was buried with his first wife and child, 40 years after their deaths.

The Coopers are resting in peace in the nearby town of Colma. Their original burial site, Laurel Hill Cemetery, was relocated after San Francisco banned burials in the city limits in 1900. Families whose loved ones were moved could take their gravestones with them but, if they chose not to, their stones ended up in landfills—which is likely how the Cooper tombstone was discovered.

The owners of the home have opted to keep the headstone where it is to let the family "rest in peace forever more."

2The mystery of a Texas daredevil may finally be solved

A "rope waker" buried in a Corsicana, Texas cemetery may finally have an identity. The unidentified one-legged man fell to his death while attempting to cross a tightrope strung across Beaton Street in 1884. He requested a Rabbi and was buried in the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery.

He remained an unknown for years until a local genealogist took up his cause. He has now been identified as Daniel De Houne, aka, Joseph (or Moses) Berg. Frank X. Tolbert, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News in 1968, recounted that the legendary “Rope Walker” might be “Professor Berg.” From there, several clippings about a one-legged tightrope walker using the name “Professor Berg" have been uncovered. Berg/De Houne performed to exalted reviews in towns throughout the United States, including several in Texas, California, Nevada, and Louisiana before his untimely death. It is believed the recording of the burial and placement of a gravestone was done so long his death, that not only was the date long-forgotten but his name was as well.

3The special effects animator who created his own headstone before his death

Bruce Perry Berman's unusual gravestone is located at Hazel Wood Cemetery in Rahway, New Jersey.

Berman was a special effects animator for national commercials and feature films and an adjunct graphics/animation professor at both Seton Hall University and William Paterson College. He died in 1996, at the age of 30, after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

The headstone was his idea, but the design was completed after his death by friend Rob Dressel. Berman was working in LA when he had his head mapped by a company that scanned actors for special effect scenes and put the scans onto a disc for safe keeping. He then had a sample head made out of foam and painted to look like it was made from brass.

He gave his wife, Carolyn, the bust for her birthday, a year after he was diagnosed with ALS. Around that time, he presented Dressel a copy of the scans and told him what his plan was for a headstone and what he wanted his friend to do in case he wasn't able. After Berman died, Dressel sent Carolyn 3-D mock-ups of the stone.

A year later, Carolyn had the stone made when she moved back to New Jersey. A sculptor used the bust and the printouts of the stone Dressel designed to create the monument, and she provided the wording for the back. It took several months and special permission from the cemetery, but Carolyn is thrilled with the final result. She said, “I know he would love it. It is so perfect for who he was.”

4The cemetery headstone that may have influenced a Beatle

Yes, there is an Eleanor Rigby, and she is buried in a Liverpool cemetery, but did she influence the Beatles' classic by the same name?

Paul McCartney once claimed she did not, but now he's not so sure—and that hasn't stopped the deeds to her grave from being listed in an auction of Beatles' memorabilia with a starting price of £4,000.

McCartney and bandmate John Lennon met on July 6, 1957, when Lennon's band, the Quarrymen, played at a garden fete at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool. It is here the real-life Eleanor Rigby is buried.

In a 1984 interview, McCartney claimed there was no connection between the gravestone and his composition about a lonely woman who "died in the church and was buried along with her name." He said he first had the name Daisy Hawkins in mind when he composed the song and later changed it to Eleanor, after the actress Eleanor Bron, who had starred with the Fab Four in the film Help! He changed the surname to Rigby, from the name of a store he had spotted in Bristol—Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers, or so he thought at the time. As the years passed, he acknowledged the strange coincidence and admitted the name could have been a product of his subconscious.

The real Eleanor Rigby was born in 1895 and lived in Liverpool. She married Thomas Woods and is believed to have worked as a scullery maid. She died young, at 44, on October 10, 1939, and was buried in the same grave as several family members, including her grandparents, whom she lived with until her death.

Her tombstone has since become a landmark for Beatles fans visiting the city.

5The reason behind a rock n' roll legend's humble headstone

Why doesn't Buddy Holly, one of rock n' roll's biggest icons, have a larger headstone? His inconspicuous marker was born of a blend of circumstances, and family wishes according to a man with first-hand knowledge.

Slaton, Texas resident Jim Sadler cut the gravestone and his partner, John Dwyer, engraved Holly's signature electric guitar—a Fender Stratocaster—on the right side of the stone.

Holly's parents, Lawrence and Ella Holley (Buddy stopped using the 'e' in his surname after it was misspelled on a record contract), purchased the stone just a few years after their son died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. They brought Buddy's guitar to Lubbock Monument Works, the now-dissolved business where Sadler made a living for about 25 years so that it could be used as a template for Holly's gravestone design.

Lubbock Cemetery once had restrictions on upright monuments in the area where Holly is buried. His parents settled for a flat stone, choosing Georgia Marble, made from hardy rock that can withstand the highly mineralized water used at the city cemetery.

6The succinct headstone that encapsulates a legendary writer's philosophy

In 1994, LA poet and author Charles Bukowski was buried beneath a simple gravestone which is adorned with the symbol of a boxer and very succinct epitaph, "Don't Try." The origin of the inscription was discussed during an interview with his widow Linda who said of the inscription, "See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They're called Who's Who In America. It's everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he (Bukowski) was in there, and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he's written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end, they say, 'Is there anything you want to say?', you know, 'What is your philosophy of life?', and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, 'Don't Try.'"

In other words, don't overthink it.

In a letter written in 1963, Bukowski replied to someone who once asked him, “What do you do? How do you write, create?” He responded by saying, "You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation, or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough, you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or, if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it."

And to further clarify the concept, in 1990 he sent a letter to his friend William Packard, again addressing the philosophy. He wrote, "We work too hard. We try too hard. Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb. There’s been too much direction. It’s all free, we needn’t be told. Classes? Classes are for asses. Writing a poem is as easy as beating your meat or drinking a bottle of beer."

7The lonely tomb of a woman who rests in a New Jersey parking lot

For the past 186 years, Mary Ellis has resided on what she probably thought would always be a stately piece of property overlooking the scenic Raritan River in New Jersey. She couldn't have known that she would be monopolizing a prime parking space for the better part of the 20th-century. Mary's final resting in place is surrounded by the asphalt of the Loew's Theater parking lot on Route 1 in New Brunswick.

Mary came to the area in the 1790s and fell in love with a man who was a sea captain, and former Revolutionary War officer. Before he went back out to sea, he vowed that when he returned, he and Mary would be wed. He even left her his beloved horse to look after in his absence.

In 1813, she purchased a parcel of farmland overlooking the river. There, she maintained a daily vigil for her beloved before dying fourteen years later in 1828. She was buried on the property and was eventually joined by her sister and other family members, and according to local lore, the captain’s horse.

The plot, which was originally surrounded by an ornately wrought iron fence in a bucolic setting, changed hands over the years, and the area has given bloom to a blight of strip malls and discount outlets. Her farm was paved over, and her plot was forgotten.

Twenty years ago, the property was redeveloped and became the Loews Cineplex. The parking lot was re-graded, making Mary’s grave stand even taller than before. The plot has also been given a new retaining wall, and a few small trees have even been planted close by.

8A 250-year-old inscription that may reveal a murder

A murder accusation eternally rings out from beyond the grave on a 250-year-old tombstone hidden away in St Margaret's churchyard in Wolstanton, Staffordshire.

An inscription on the grave of Sarah Smith alleges that the girl was poisoned, and the name of her killer is even cryptically revealed.The worn, but legible, carving, reads:

"It was C–––s B–––w
That brought me to my end.
Dear parents, mourn not for me
For God will be my friend.
With half a pint of poyson
He came to visit me.
Write this on my grave
That all that read it may see."

The tombstone records that Sarah was the daughter of Samuel and Martha Smith, of nearby Bradwell Park. She, "departed this life" on November 29, 1763, at the age of 21. Just a couple of lines below the handwritten note recording Sarah's death is another burial: “Sarah, child of Sarah Smith."

No father is named on this record, so it appears the child was born illegitimately, and a local man believes this might be the motive for the young woman's murder.

Jeremy Crick, who lives close to the church, spent years researching the grave, combing through parish records and spending hours in the library, after coming across it during a stroll through the churchyard. His manuscript, “Sarah Smith of Wolstanton. A rediscovered secret and a 250-year-old murder mystery solved" claims to identify the killer, a wealthy farmer, who lived not far from Sarah's home. Crick believes it was he who was the father of Sarah's illegitimate child and it was he who killed her to avoid the shame and the complication.

Comments