Monday, June 7, 2010

Spring Grove: Where Dead People Live

Dear George,

I saw my first dead person when I was in the third grade.  It was our Ogden Avenue crossing guard at Washington Grade School.  His name might have been Scotty, though I’m no longer sure.  He was an elderly man with thinning white hair, spectacles, a round face, and a jolly demeanor.  We learned that he’d died of a heart attack and was laid out in the funeral home down the street.  School children were allowed to visit and say goodbye.  I did so one lunch hour, though with trepidation and only because of pressure from my peers.  It was a memorable experience -- the image of Scotty’s corpse remains imprinted in my brain even today.

The concept of death was virtually impossible to digest as a child.  After worrying about it for five or six years, I managed to put it out of my mind altogether.  It became more immediate when my mother died in 1986, then again with my father in 1993.  When I turned 60, death was starting to take on a personal connotation.  By age 70 I started catching glimpses of a black-robed figure prowling around outside our windows with his scythe.  I don’t know yet what 80 will be like, but I intend to be around to find out.

All of this came to mind when I took a walking tour of Spring Grove Cemetery the other day.  We learned about Spring Grove when we moved to Cincinnati, and we’ve been there many times.  It’s a tourist highlight in the city and has been around for a long long time.  The first burial occurred in 1845.  In 1855 the founders hired Adolph Strauch, a prominent landscape architect, to design the grounds, and it’s his vision of a “garden cemetery” made up of lakes, trees, and flowering shrubs that remains 155 years later.  Strauch also designed two of my other favorite local places, Burnet Woods and Eden Park.  In addition to its many elegant tombs and memorials, Spring Grove has a famous collection of native and exotic trees.  Some of its well-known inhabitants include Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase, Alphonse and Louise Taft (William Howard’s parents), soap entrepreneurs William Procter and James Gamble, grocer Bernard Kroger, Civil War general Joseph Hooker, and Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin.  

J took a course on cemeteries during his junior year at Columbia, and his ears perked up when the professor, an international expert, identified Spring Grove as one of his favorite cemeteries in the world.  The next time J came home, we went over and he took a lot of photographs of angels’ heads on the tombs.

My dad came down with dementia in his 80s and moved to Cincinnati.  I took him on a visit to Spring Grove on one of our outings, and he was fascinated.  Rather than identifying it as a cemetery, he decided it was a sculpture garden (which it is), and he reveled in the many works of fine art. 

Katja’s parents, Helen and Buck, moved to Cincinnati in the 1990’s as well.  They had purchased cemetery plots in Philadelphia, but they decided that being near to their oldest child was preferable.  Katja went with Helen to Spring Grove to look the place over; then we all went to inspect a mausoleum.  Helen explained that the salesperson had offered a discount if we wanted to purchase four crypts together.  I asked Katja privately what the arrangement would be, and she said we would be toe to toe.  I was uncomfortable about being toe-to-toe with my father-in-law, but the prospect of being inches away from my mother-in-law for all eternity was unacceptable.  Katja politely declined the offer, and Helen and Buck settled for a joint plot on a hillside overlooking a lake.  Helen wasn’t completely enthusiastic because their spot overlooked a large white cross on the lakeshore below, and, as Jews, she wasn’t sure that they wanted to be located right in front of a cross.  Katja, though, pragmatic as she is, said it was just one cross, and it probably wouldn’t matter that much in the long run.

Buck passed away first in 1995, and Helen remained in mourning for the rest of her life.  They had a single tombstone with both of their names and an image of their wedding ring on it. On our visits to the gravesite, Helen always looked at their two names together and seemed eager to join her husband.  She too passed away in 2001, and since then Katja has had little mental  conversations with the two of them when we go to visit.

Though Spring Grove has a certain curiosity value, I’m not ready to commit to it.  Among other things, Katja and I are on different pages regarding our death wishes.  My dad decided that the funeral business exploited family members’ grief, and he firmly advocated cremation, eliminating the need for coffins, cemetery plots, elaborate funerals, etc.  His children adopted his beliefs.  Katja, however, finds that option unthinkable and plans to be embalmed in order to remain physically intact forevermore.  This seems like one of those conflicts that will only get resolved after one person dies.  So we don’t bother talking about it any more.  But we do go over and walk around Spring Grove from time to time.



G-Mail Comments

-Linda C (6-8): loved this, my grief group has had many discussions about this, gift the body or cremains for me. beautiful place tho

-Donna D (6-7):  Fantastic.  We all die, right?


  1. Thank you for all your wonderful compliments about Spring Grove's grounds. Every day we try to live up to the moniker "a museum without walls".

    Families have different perspectives about funerals and cemeteries. We try to educate people and let them decide what options are best for them. We serve families that have had a loss every day. Our only counsel is to share whatever final wishes you have with those you may leave behind. It will help them as they continue on.

    Gary Freytag
    Spring Grove Family of Companies

  2. Thanks, Gary. I've spent a lot of time taking photos at Spring Grove recently, and I realize every time what a great treasure this is for the community and the region.