Tag Archives: Spotlight On

The Secret Garden…

Treasures from Highgate Cemetery

A 170 year old cemetery is not typically on a “To Visit While in London” list.  However, Highgate, a mysteriously overgrown and historically elegant cemetery should be a definite addition as it represents a unique view of Victorian tastes and social pretensions.

Curiosity is whetted by the some of the more fascinating tombstones such as Nero the Lion, protecting owner George Wombwell who was the English forerunner of Barnum and Bailey. His collection of exotic animals became a highlight of British town fairs in Victorian times. Over there is the column to scandalous George Eliot who deliciously shocked society by openly living with her married lover. Then shocking them all again by marrying a man 20 years her junior. Beyond that curve in the path is Elizabeth Siddal, the model for drowned Ophelia who is still so familiar today. And of course, bare knuckle prize fighter, World Heavyweight Champion Tom Sayers is here, watched over by his faithful dog.  


And there are so many more tombstones tucked away in various nooks and crannies of Highgate. But perhaps the most important question of how all of this came to be, should be answered first. 

Highgate was one of seven cemeteries established in Victorian times to accommodate a rising demand for burial plots. Traditionally, the dead were buried in and around the local churchyards that operated as the common focal point in smaller town society.  To this day, old family generational plots dotting the English countryside can still be seen.  However, during Victorian times something occurred that dramatically changed this aspect – something called the Industrial Revolution.  More jobs were to be found in the factories than on the farms, thus more people were migrating to the bigger cities.  More people in larger cities meant a greater strain on urban resources resulting in fewer available burial sites. As a result, burials beneath church floorboards, the re-use of plots, river-dumping and body snatching by medical students, became the norm. To counter these occurrences, seven cemeteries were established in and around London. Out of these seven, Highgate arguably became the most elegant and socially desirable of them all and today, the visitor finds many unique architectural treasures from the Victorian period.


 One of the most interesting features Continue reading


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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – Vietnam Veteran Interment Ceremony



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Sharing Saturday: What it takes to guard the tomb


I thought I’d do something a little different for this week’s Sharing Saturday post. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to become one of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, well here you go.

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A little mid-winter creepiness

Lebanon Circle_Highgate

Visitors to West Cemetery portion of Highgate Cemetery will recognize these photos showing view from the top and the bottom of the stairs into the Circle of Lebanon mausoleum. For more photos that really give a more full overview of what the Circle looks like, check out this Google photo collection.

Circle of Lebanon_HG


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The graveyard at Graveyard Vineyards

Graveyard Vineyards 2

I promised you some symbols for January and what better way to start things off than by introducing you to a really neat place I visited down in Paso Robles, CA; Graveyard Vineyards.

Paso Robles, CA (about 40+ miles from Hearst Castle) is making its mark as one of the places to visit for wine. If you prefer boutique wineries to big, sprawling corporate ventures, Graveyard Wineries is about as boutique as you’re going to find. After all, few wineries can claim their own historical cemetery.

Graveyard Vineyards 1

According to the website: “This landmark began back in the 1860’s, when the surrounding area of land was the town of Estrella and the original landowner donated an acre of his property for the new First Presbyterian Church. Once the church was built, the landowner’s wife passed away and was buried next to the church, creating the “graveyard”. Many towns’ people followed suit until the church burnt down in 1896. Neither the town of Estrella nor the church lasted, but the little graveyard continues on to this day. It is now named The Pleasant Valley Cemetery and is cared for by community volunteers just as in the 1800’s.”

The actual cemetery is rather small, but just about all the stones are well-preserved, including the carvings. I chalk that up to the dry, hot weather. There were several interesting examples of symbols I’ll share throughout this week – here’s one of the better known ones out there.


And no, this symbol does not mean, “pull my finger”.

Rather, it symbolizes the hope of heaven, of going to a better place.

When you do get around to visiting the tasting room at the top of the hill (and you really should), don’t forget to look down at the flagged walkway leading into the main area. It’ll give you a good idea of just how devoted some of the vineyard’s followers are. I particularly like the brick on the upper left that was given by the local homicide department.


Oh, and as far as the wine goes? I recommend the Paso Tombstone White and Red. If you love dessert wines, then you absolutely cannot go wrong with a chocolate port-styled concoction aptly named Deliverance.

Wine and cemeteries. What more could you want?




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Spotlight On: The Monuments’ Man

Monuments Man

Gravestone conservation and historic stone preservation has become the art and science of preserving all we can of our heritage carved in stone.

By conserving historic gravestones, we help preserve that stone for future generations and for ourselves see a glimpse of the past.”  – Jonathan Appell, Monuments’ Conservator

Back in September, BTG posted an article about how the local residents in Demersville, Montana wanted to preserve and restore the pioneer headstones in their local cemetery.  Not content to just pull weeds and dust things off, they called in Jonathan Appell, a monuments conservator who travels all over the country offering cemetery preservation planning, headstone cleaning, and training workshops to local cemetery groups.

BTG caught up with him as he was driving through Wyoming to find out more about what he does and just how he became a Monuments’ Man.

Q: What’s your official title?

A: I’m a gravestone conservator.  

Q: How long have you been doing the preservation/restoration workshops?

A: I’ve been doing this full-time for about 14 years.

Q: How did you get started?

A: I’ve got a diverse background. I attended violin making school, did some woodworking, making cabinets, building houses, etc.  I got into monument business because of a friend who needed someone who could be responsible for site work and construction. In 1987, I became a grave-digger and then went on to become a cemetery contractor. This included excavation and other related things, such as foundations under modern monuments. Then I started doing repair work because I had the equipment to properly handle it. Eventually, I went on to training and field work and got more interested in historical work.

Q: Where have you offered your seminars?

A: All over the country. I’ve traveled to 30-odd states.

Q: What’s the difference you see between East Coast and West Coast preservation awareness?

A: The East Coast is where this is all coming from, for example, the Association of Gravestone Studies annual conference. There’s more historic interest on the east coast (Massachusetts and New England) because the history line is longer. It’s spreading through Ohio and Pennsylvania, but it’s sparser out west. There’s an interest, but not as much because the history timeline’s not so long out here.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge toward preserving old historic cemeteries?

A: There are several challenges. First, the awareness of historic timelines, then there are different problems in different places, depending on the stones and the types of stones, and the climate. Arid states have lesser deterioration, whereas cemeteries in areas with moisture and pollution will have issues.

A specific example I see is in West Virginia where companies are doing mountain top removal that not only impacts local houses, but also local cemeteries.  

The long-term problem is that there are not enough younger people interested. My seminars attract an age range from middle-aged to the elderly. We need to somehow change this. This is hard physical work and many kids aren’t interested in it. Then there are the funding challenges—where’s the money coming from to keep all this up?

Q: How can people find out more about what your restoration seminars cover?

A: The best way to explain this is to direct people to the Lectures page on my website. There’s a detailed explanation on what I do that people can read up on in case they are unable to connect with me first hand. I’ve also posted several restoration videos on YouTube that people have found useful. In addition, check out the GravestonePreservation.info site that also has lots of helpful information.

For anyone wishing to contact Jonathan directly to discuss setting up a possible restoration workshop, he can be reached at (860) 558.2785, via email at historicstone@msn.com or through his Facebook page.


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Rescuing the Poor Farm Cemetery one dowsing at a time

Eagle Scout

Three cheers for Adam Lehechka who’s taken on quite a daunting Eagle Scout project.

Not only will he be pulling weeds, fixing the surrounding fence, painting the entryway sign, and raising $2,500 for a state historical marker at the Poor Farm Cemetery near Grand Island, Nebraska,  he’s also going to locate and mark as many of the unmarked burial sites as possible.

Using copper dowser rods.

The land was originally purchased as a poor farm (where people could work for room and board) in 1879. Eleven years later, a portion of the property was turned into a cemetery with burials occurring there until 1919 in unmarked graves. The property has remained relatively vacant since then.

Hence, the dowsing rods.

Dowsing rods have been used for centuries to find anything from treasure to water and this case,  unmarked burial site.  Here’s how Lehechka finds the sites:

Lehechka holds the copper rods loosely while walking slowly across the cemetery ground. If the rods cross, a grave is found. If the right rod crosses over the left, the body buried there is male. If the left crosses over the right, the body there is female.”

It’s unknown at this time just how many graves are in  the Poor Cemetery, but I do hope Adam sticks with it to the end. This is a huge project that’s certainly worthy of the Eagle Scout badge.

Want to read more/donate to the project? Check out the full article here.

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