Woodlawn Cemetery Memorial Tells A Coney Island Story Of Unusual Death

Brighton Beach Lightning Strike Felt By Thousands, Kills Six – July 30, 1905


When walking through Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, you can come across fancy mausoleums and simple grave markers of the famous and infamous. F.W. Woolworth, Fiorello LaGuardia, Duke Ellington, Bat Masterson and Herman Melville are among the half million souls interred in this historic place.

Then out of the blue you may stumble across the lives of ordinary New Yorker’s memorialized in an extraordinary way. Such is the Demmerle monument.

Unlike many other tombstones which record a name and birth and death years with a short epitaph, the Demmerle memorial is an ornate series of carved monuments which tells and shows the story of one family’s tragedy.

Demmerle-1110355-Charles-EmilieSunday July 30, 1905 started out as a beautiful, sun-filled, hot day and an estimated 250,000 New Yorker’s sought out the seashore of Coney Island for pleasure and a refuge from the heat. Charles Demmerle age 51, his wife Emilie age 49 and their two sons, Frank C. age 23, and Charles R. age 22 all residing at 372 East 16th Street Flatbush, spent the day with their cousin Robert T. Wasch age 16 at Brighton Beach.

After a day of swimming the weather started changing. At 4 pm the sky darkened and swimmers left the water as rain began to fall, coming down heavier and heavier as the minutes passed. Many took refuge near the Parkway Baths on the beach at Ocean Parkway.

As the rain fell, thunder and lightning approached the beach, a large flagpole topped by an eagle on the Boardwalk near the Parkway Baths became a gathering spot for thousands of beach goers seeking shelter. They congregated around the pole, on the boardwalk and under the boardwalk which covered the beach.

There were a few vivid flashes accompanied by thunder cracks before the big one came.

John Manzer, a witness standing on the boardwalk and looking up  described what happened next. “A ball of fire seemed to start right up at the eagle’s beak and travel downward around and around the pole. Right at the crosstrees it spread out and seemed to drop into the earth with a noise I will never forget.”

The flagpole was split in half. Everyone on or under the wet conductive boardwalk and sand beneath it was given a jolt and those nearest the flagpole were literally thrown to the ground. Thousands of people felt the electrical shock.  After the screaming subsided, it was noticed that five people were blue from head to toe and stone dead. Frank and Charles Demmerle, their cousin Robert and two others, all near the base of the flagpole were killed instantly. At least nine others suffered serious burns. Simultaneously, a sixth man standing under a tree in nearby Gravesend was killed by what was believed by some to be the same bolt that had struck in Brighton Beach.

The dead were taken to a nearby room when Mrs. Demmerle came by looking for her missing boys.

The New York Times reported that she took one look at the bodies stretched out on the floor and fell forward crying “Oh, my boys! The dear boys to whose future I had looked forward with so much pride. I warned them not to go into the water when the storm came up. I feared even then that some evil was about to befall”

The Demmerle’s put up this poignant monument to commemorate their loss. The large memorial stone has three bronze reliefs showing the young men. The monument also has set into the stone in bronze relief  the depiction of the lightning bolt striking the flagpole and the boardwalk.

The words on the front of the monument read simply “Our Fondest Hopes Lie Buried Here!” with the names and ages of the three young men. Beneath that it says “TAKEN SUDDENLY IN AN HOUR OF HAPPINESS. STRUCK BY A BOLT OF LIGHTNING.” The rear of the monument contains a long anguished poem.

Parents, Emilie and Charles’ Demmerle’s monument to the left of their sons and nephew depicts a life size statue of mother Emilie, sitting on a tree stump, offering flowers, her head cast down in mourning, with a broken tree limb above her.

It is truly a magnificent work of funereal art and it certainly calls attention today to the fact that this family’s anguish is worthy of remembrance and a retelling.

Complete Article HERE!



For 75 years, Colma, Calif., has been steadily collecting bodies and it’s constantly getting deader. As of 2009, the city had 1,500 living residents and 1.5 million marked graves. Seventy-three percent of Colma’s land belongs to the dead with the rest occupied by people who have a great sense of humor. The town’s motto: “It’s Great To Be Alive In Colma.”


Complete Article HERE!

Santa Claus’ three graves

After Saint Nicholas’ bones were looted from his tomb in Turkey about 700 years after he died, cities in Italy and Ireland claimed to have stolen the bones. For centuries there was debate about which city is home to the grave of beloved Old Saint Nick. While the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy was widely accepted to be home to the relics of Saint Nicholas, there were two other cities that alleged to possess the grave of St. Nicholas: Venice, Italy and Newtown Jerpoint, Ireland.

Saint Nicholas was born around 270 AD to a wealthy family in the village of Patara in modern Turkey. He became well-known for his charitable nature because he gave away his fortune to help the sick and the poor. Nicholas was so famous for his kindness that he eventually became the basis for the Santa Claus legend. He was eventually elected Bishop of Myra, a Roman city in modern day Turkey, despite not being a priest at the time, possibly because his uncle previously held the position.

The original tomb of St. Nicholas in Myra.
The original tomb of St. Nicholas in Myra.

Nicholas died in 343 AD and his remains were eventually interred at St. Nicholas Church in Myra. After his death, Nicholas was recognized as a saint locally before the Roman Catholic Church had a formalized canonization process. Nicholas’ tomb became a popular pilgrimage site that produced a lot of money for the local economy, especially when monks discovered water in the tomb that could be harvested and sold. The monks believed that Nicholas’ bones produced this liquid, which they called manna, and claimed that it had healing powers.

In 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy traveled to Myra and visited the tomb of St. Nicholas with an ulterior motive-steal the relics and bring them back to Italy. Some believe the Christian sailors stole the skeletal remains to save them from the invading Muslim Seljuk Turks, while others think they were stolen to bring money from the lucrative pilgrimage industry to Bari.

The tomb of Saint Nicholas in Bari, Italy
The tomb of Saint Nicholas in Bari, Italy

When the bones arrived in Bari in May of 1087, the townspeople vowed to build a basilica to house the relics. Saint Nicholas’ crypt was completed in 1089 and Pope Urban II translated the relics and consecrated the shrine at the Basilica di San Nicola.

The bones continued to secrete the famous manna in the new tomb in Bari.   Since 1980, the liquid isharvested from the bottom of the tomb on May 9th, the Feast of the Translation of S. Nicholas from Myra to Bari.

In 1957, Luigi Martino, an anatomy professor at the University of Bari, led a team that carefully examined and documented St. Nicholas’ bones in Bari. The skull was in pretty good condition but the rest of the bones were fragmented and fragile. Martino found that these remains belonged to an elderly manbetween 72 and 80 years old, which fit Nicholas’ age at death of about 75 years old.

But for centuries Venetians claimed that the church of San Nicolò al Lido also possessed the bones of St. Nicholas. They believed that when troops sailed from Venice to fight in the First Crusade in 1099 they stopped off in Myra. During this visit, these sailors visited St. Nicholas Church and robbed the saint’s tomb and stole an urn with an inscription, “Here lies the Great Bishop Nicholas, Glorious on Land and Sea.”

The ships returned to Venice in 1101, after the First Crusade ended, with the some St. Nicholas’ remains. The bones were ultimately interred in a funerary monument at San Nicoló al Lido.

For centuries Bari and Venice had a heated dispute over who really had Nicholas’ bones. So Luigi Martino, the anatomist who examined the bones in Bari in 1957, was allowed to look at the Venetian bones in 1992 to settle the debate.   He discovered that the Venetian bones were broken into “as many as 500” pieces that were brittle and delicate. The bone fragments in Venice were in the same poor condition as the bones in Bari.

Martino found that the skeletal remains in Bari and Venice are likely from the same man because the pieces of bone stored at San Nicoló al Lido were fragments of body parts missing from the body interred at Bari. It’s thought that the Venetian sailors stole the fragmented bones left behind after the Barian theft in 1087. The Venetian bones, however, reportedly don’t secrete manna.

The grave slab of St. Nicholas at Jerpoint Abbey in Ireleand.

But Irish historians allege that the body of Saint Nicholas is really buried in an abandoned medieval town in Ireland. Central to the Irish claims to St. Nicholas’ grave are the de Frainets, a French family who participated in the Crusades. In one tale, two knights named Den and de Frainet robbed the Nicholas’ relics from the Basilica in Bari on their way home from the Crusades and brought them to Ireland.

In another story, the de Frainets helped to steal Saint Nicholas’ relics from Myra and brought them to Bari, a time when the town was under the control of French Normans.  When the Normans were pushed out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France and took Saint Nicholas’ remains with them. The relics remained in France until the Normans lost power in the area.

Nicholas de Frainet brought the bones to Newtown Jerpoint, a medieval town where his family owned land. Nicholas de Frainet built a Cistercian Abbey at Jerpoint where St Nicholas’s remains were buried in 1200. Although Newtown Jerpoint is deserted, the abbey is stands.

While this theory seems to be a tactic to draw pilgrims to the area, there is a bit of credibility to the Irish claim. At Jerpoint Abbey there is a grave slab that seems to depict the body of St. Nicholas and carvings of the heads of two Knights, Den and de Frainet, who stole the relics from Bari.

The Turkish government seems to believe the Italian claims to possess the elderly bishop’s bones. Since 2009, the Turkish Ministry of Culture has repeatedly petitioned the Italian government and the Vatican for the return of Saint Nicholas’ bones because they were illegally obtained.

 Complete Article HERE!

101 Ways to Say “Died”



I’m going to start running a series called “101 Ways to Say Died.” In this project, I will be cataloging all the synonyms for “died” that appear in early American epitaphs.

In order to qualify, the word/phrase must appear in the main part of the text, not the verse. That is to say, I’m looking at the part where it says, “Here lies John Doe, died January 1, 1750,” rather than the poetic epitaph that sometimes appears after the primary epitaph. If I can’t make it to 101 with this criterion, I’ll look at the verses. Similarly, I’m going to limit eligibility to pre-1825 stones with the option to extend that to 1850 if I fall short of 101.

Complete list of 101 posts after the break.

Departed This Life
Departed This Life

Part 1: Died
Part 2: Departed This Life
Part 3: Deceased
Part 4: Entred Apon an Eternal Sabbath of Rest
Part 5: Fell a Victim to an Untimely Disease
Part 6: Departed This Transitory Life
Part 7: Killed by the Fall of a Tree
Part 8: Left Us
Part 9: Obit
Part 10: Slain by the Enemy
Part 11: Departed This Stage of Existence
Part 12: Went Rejoycing Out of This World
Part 13: Submiting Her Self to ye Will of God
Part 14: Fell Asleep
Part 15: Changed a Fleeting World for an Immortal Rest
Part 16: Fell Asleep in the Cradle of Death
Part 17: Fell Aslep in Jesus
Part 18: Was Still Born
Part 19: Innocently Retired
Part 20: Expired
Part 21: Perished in a Storm
Part 22: Departed from This in Hope of a Better Life
Part 23: Summoned to Appear Before His Judge
Part 24: Liv’d About 2 Hours
Part 25: Rose Upon the Horizon of Perfect Endless Day
Part 26: Peracto Hac Vita
Part 27: Bid Farewell to this World
Part 28: Was Barbarously Murdered in his Own Home by Gages Bloody Troops
Part 29: Kill’d by a Cart
Part 30: Killed by a Waggon
Part 31: Passed to the Summer Land

Passed to the Summer Land
Passed to the Summer Land

Part 32: Joined the Congregation of the Dead
Part 33: Exchanged Worlds
Part 34: Changed this Mortal Life for that of Immortality
Part 35: Her Longing Spirit Sprung
Part 36: Lost at Sea
Part 37: Hung
Part 38: Finish’d a Life of Examplary Piety
Part 39: Breathed Her Soul Away Into Her Saviour’s Arms
Part 40: Second Birth
Part 41: Passed Into the World of Spirits
Part 42: Fell by the Hands of . . . an Infatuated Man
Part 43: Expired in the Faith of Christ
Part 44: Ended All Her Cares in Quiet Death
Part 45: Yielding Up Her Spirit
Part 46: Clos’d This Earthly Scene
Part 47: Her Existence Terminated
Part 48: Rested From ye Pains & Sorrows of This Life
Part 49: Inhumanly Murdered by Cruel Savages
Part 50: Entered the Regions of Immortal Felicity
Part 51: Lost His Life By a Fall From a Tree
Part 52: Fell Bravely Fighting for the Liberties of His Country
Part 53: Finished a Long and Useful Life
Part 54: Was Shot by a Negroe Soldier
Part 55: Drowned
Part 56: Was Found Lashed to the Mast of His Sunken and Ill-Fated Vessel
Part 57: Began to Dissolve
Part 58: Died . . . From Stabs Inflicted With a Knife
Part 59: Basely Assassinated
Part 60: Resigned His Soul to God
Part 61: Fell on Sleep and Was Laid Unto His Fathers
Part 62: Made His Exit
Part 63: Supposed Foundered at Sea
Part 64: Quitted the Stage
Part 65: Earth Life Closed
Part 66: Frozen to Death
Part 67: Was Called to Close His Eyes on Mortal Things
Part 68: Chearfully Resigned Her Spret Into the Hand of Jesus
Part 69: Entred into His Heavenly House
Part 70: . . . For A Never Ending Eternity
Part 71: Yielded Her Spirit to Its Benevolent Author
Part 72: Lost on Look-Out Shoals
Part 73: Exchanged This for a Better Life
Part 74: Rested From the Hurry of Life
Part 75: Received a Mortal Wound on His Head
Part 76: Died Tryumphingly in Hops of a Goyful Resurrection
Part 77: Kill’d By Lightening
Part 78: Left It
Part 79: Whose Deaths . . . Were Occasioned by the Explosion of the Powder Mill
Part 80: Translation to ye Temple Above
Part 81: Resigned His Mortal Life
Part 82: Call’d . . . To His Reward
Part 83: Arrested by Death
Part 84: . . . And Have Never Since Been Heard of
Part 85: Gone Home
Part 86: Resigned This Life in Calm and Humble Hope of Heaven
Part 87: Was Released
Part 88: Left Her Weeping Friends
Part 89: Laid His Hoary Head to Rest Beneath This Mournful Turf
Part 90: Rested From His Labors

Rested from His Labors
Rested from His Labors

Part 91: Quitted the Stage
Part 92: Was Casually Shot
Part 93: Cut Down in the Bloom of Life
Part 94: Unhappily Parish’d in the Flames
Part 95: Unveiled
Part 96: Nobly Fell By the Impious Hand of Treason and Rebellion
Part 97: Fell in Battle at Molino del Rey
Part 98: Remanded
Part 99: Translated to His Masters Joy
Part 100: Bid Adieu to Earthly Scenes
Part 101: I Am Only Going Into Another Room

Even though the series is over, I’ll carry on posting these as I find them.

Part 102: Was Taken By Death From His Mother’s Breasts
Part 103: Was Suffocated
Part 104: Left to Go and Be With Christ
Part 105: Left This World
Part 106: Passed Onward
Part 107: Passed Away
Part 108: Perished With 41 Other Persons
Part 109: Killed By Falling From Cliffs
Part 110: Vanquished the World and Relinquished It
Part 111: Was Removed By a Dysentery
Part 112: Died in His Country[‘]s Service
Part 113: Commenced Her Inseparable Union with Her Much Beloved Husband and Her God
Part 114: Was Drouned in a Tan Pit
Part 115: Was Instantly Kill’d by a Stock of Boards
Part 116: Submitted to the Stroke of All Conquering Death
Part 117: Died of the 108 Convulsion Fit
Part 118: Hurried From This Life

Complete Article HERE!

9 Most Haunting Graves in Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery

By: Olga Kirshenbaum


If every cemetery tells a tale, then Père Lachaise speaks volumes. Anywhere from 300,000 to 1,000,000 souls are interred within the walls of Paris’s grand burial ground. Along its winding tree-lined paths rest some of the most influential writers, painters, musicians, and politicians in history–many of whom continue to fascinate even in death.


Balzac was a famous French writer from the 19th century. One of his most well-known publications is La Comédie Humaine or The Human Comedy, a multi-volume collection of 90 works depicting the life of the bourgeoisie. Balzac’s headstone consists of a bronze bust placed upon a pillar with a quill at its base. The tomb rests in a peaceful spot of the cemetery, with trees and smaller graves surrounding it.


Alphonse Bertillon was a French criminologist from 1853 who established an intricate forensic method used to identify criminals–much of which is still in use today. One facet of the Bertillon system involved taking profile photographs of criminals, now known as the mugshot. Bertillon’s tomb, covered in intricate carvings, has suffered from years of exposure to the elements. Moss blankets the top of the tomb, while a twisted bed of tulips (unfortunately not in bloom here) sprout up from the bottom.


Bizet was a French operatic composer from 1838. The opera “Carmen” is one of his most famous works. He was a gifted child, entering the Paris Conservatory at age 9. In 1857 he won the Prix de Rome, a prestigious scholarship that allows students to study their art in Rome. Bizet’s grave overlooks a steep hill dotted with gorgeous trees. His tomb rests in the shadow of a much larger mausoleum, but its simplicity is what draws your eye. Overlooking the grave is a stone marker crowned with an intricate bronze sculpture of wreathed harp.


Géricault was a gifted French Romantic painter who died in 1824 at the age of 32. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the young master’s work, there’s no doubting his grave contains an artist. A relief of Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” which currently hangs in the Louvre, adorns the side of this tomb.


Félix Galipaux was popular musical hall actor in 1880s France. He moved into film around the turn of the century, starring in some of the first sound films ever produced. Galipaux’s tomb is crowned with a bust of the man. It’s a simple grave but it has a distinction to it.


A Polish composer and a prodigy on the piano, Chopin studied at the Warsaw Conservatory. Although he was a virtuoso performer, Chopin preferred to teach and compose for the stage. Chopin’s tomb is nestled on a hillside and often difficult to track down–but once you’re on the right path it’s hard to miss. The intricate fence surrounding Chopin’s tomb is covered in flowers.


Doors frontman Jim Morrison died in Paris in 1971. He was buried in Père Lachaise, where the party followed the 60s singer even in death. Empty liquor bottles, handwritten letters, and bouquets of flowers littered the unassuming grave throughout the seventies and eighties. Graffiti covered Morrison’s headstone and the graves surrounding his burial plot. A bust of the singer, installed upon the grave in 1981 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Morrison’s death, was stolen in 1988. Today, a security guard stands watch over the tomb, curtailing such rowdy behavior.

EDITH PIAF – SINGER (1915 – 1963)

Edith Piaf was a French cabaret singer from 1915 whose soaring voice earned her the title of one of France’s greatest stars. Taking a small path off a main road of the cemetery, Piaf’s burial plot rests among many other graves similar to it. The simple tomb is adorned with a crucifix and decorated with red roses left by visitors. Standing graveside, it’s hard not to hear one of Piaf’s moving songs playing in the distance.


Belgian-born poet and novelist Georges Rodenbach moved to Paris toward the end of his life, where he contributed to the Belgian literary renaissance movement. His famous works include novels Bruges-La-Morte and Le Carillonneur. The author’s tomb immediately catches your eye, as there’s nothing like it even in the grand Père Lachaise. Similar to the dramatic style of Rodenbach’s writing, the tomb is of a man said to be Rodenbach emerging from the grave and grasping a rose.

 Complete Article HERE!

Dollhouse Graves

By By Charlie Hintz

These grave markers are as sad as they are sweet. These dollhouses were built by grieving parents for their beloved daughters, complete with favorite toys and other significant items. Though they are plagued by vandalism through the years, they continue to be kept up and restored when need be.

Dorothy Marie Harvey (1926-1931)

Dorothy Marie Harvey and her family were passing through Medina, Tennessee on their way North to find work. When Dorothy got measles and died, the townfolk helped her family bury her in Hope Hill Cemetery.

Her parents left her behind and continued on.

Vivian Mae Allison (1894-1899)

The dollhouse of Vivian Mae Allison is located in the Connersville City Cemetery in Connersville, Indiana.

Lova Cline (1902-1908)

Lova Cline’s dollhouse memorial is in the Arlington East Hill Cemetery in Arlington, Indiana.

Nadine Earles (1929-1933)

The grave of Nadine Earles is in the Oakwood Cemetery in Lanett, Alabama.

The story goes that Nadine wanted a dollhouse for Christmas. Since she died just before the holiday, her parents built her a dollhouse on her grave and filled it with her toys and personal belongings.

Complete Article HERE!

At Rest in the Fields


A simple memorial stone serves as the only visible marker for this shaded gravesite.

There is nothing unusual about these three girls. They are sisters. They have eyes and ears and they will remember this part of their lives forever. Taylor Ann, 9, is the oldest, and determined to speak for the others, even when it gets her in trouble. She is a smiley redhead with freckles and talks without punctuation or taking breath.

Tori is the second-oldest at 7. She is exactingly articulate, pronouncing each syllable in “e-ver-y-thing.” She has light brown hair and a slight lisp, evidence that she is growing as she speaks, her baby teeth falling out and her adult teeth growing in. Her voice is perfectly childish and curious.

Texie, 4, is the baby sister, but not the youngest sibling. That title goes to the girls’ 2-year-old brother, Junior. Texie’s placement on the second-to-bottom sibling rung sets her just high enough to grab her older sisters’ attention, but she is still something of a baby when it comes to conversation. Even so, her sporadic observations are often quite sharp. Of the three girls, Texie has the most recognizable voice when they’re all talking at once. It’s a soft garble she uses in hiccup-like bursts to coo to her stuffed animal or scream “Caaaoooolllerr the feaddderrrs!” at the ruffled bird in her coloring book. She has baby-blue eyes and platinum-blond hair, and she makes her sisters laugh.

The sound of the three of them speaking at once is not unusual. Tori and Taylor Ann bicker over the details of a story about a kitten while Texie boks like a chicken. When I ask about their oldest brother, L.J., Taylor Ann quickly gives an answer she thinks will satisfy me, and then goes back to talking about her cat. “No,” I say, clarifying my question. “How long were you with him at your house after he actually died?”

Every time they visit Eloise Woods“Oh, you mean like right after he died?” The other two are quiet now. “Um, just a night. Yeah, just one night.” The distinction is meaningful because, as Taylor Ann had told me earlier, the sisters were with L.J. for a whole year after they knew he was going to die. I look at the younger girls and they’re not interested in talking about it. We’ve talked about it enough over the last three months. Every time they visit Eloise Woods, the natural-burial park where their brother is buried and where I work, they reveal a new angle of their experience of his death. Today’s angle is that they don’t feel like talking about it.

“Let’s go see L.J.,” Tori says.

“Yeah!” the other girls shriek.

We leave the coloring books on the small table between the two sheds where we always meet and walk down Cardinal Trail to visit his grave.

I was wearing hiking boots and jeans with a bloodstain on one of the belt loops when I caught the eye of the lady at the gas station.

“Going to the beach?” she asked coyly.

“No,” I said, giggling. “A cemetery.”

“Ooooooh,” she gasped, her interest piqued.

I didn’t have time to get flirty about death. I swiped my card and rushed back to my car. Just broaching the subject of what I do often turns into a lengthy discussion about the complicated politics and emotions surrounding natural burial. It’s imperative that I engage in these discussions, and most of the time I do. Word of mouth is one of the few ways people learn that they can in fact bury people in Texas without embalming, without a vault, without even a casket. They can even bury on their own land if they meet the requirements of their county and aren ’t concerned with complicating resale of the property. But such conversations are rarely brief, and I had to get to the Woods.

We weren’t sure what time the family would be arriving with L.J., the 11-year-old who had died the night before. Specifics weren’t part of the deal with his family. Though we’d known for close to a year that they would have a home funeral followed by a natural burial, we knew little else. Even the boy’s condition—why he was terminal—was discussed only vaguely by the family. All we knew was that he was in a wheelchair and that he didn’t have long to live.

Home funerals usually lead to natural burials, but not always. Most of our families employ conventional funeral homes, hold a service in a chapel and transport the body to us in the funeral home’s vehicle. We have good relationships with many funeral homes in Austin, even though we can tell their employees feel out of place when their shiny loafers step onto our roads, mulched to prevent erosion. They usually give us a couple of days’ notice before they arrive. The night L.J. died, Ellen MacDonald, my boss, the owner of Eloise Woods, emailed me at 1 a.m. telling me to show up the next morning at 8.

L.J.’s family decorates his casket in preparation for burial.
L.J.’s family decorates his casket in preparation for burial.

Every time I drive to Eloise Woods, the sun strobes on my left cheek as it passes between houses and trees. It’s a bright nuisance, just beyond the reach of my visor. I drive along Austin’s eastern edge, and once I’m past the airport and under the toll road, it’s a straight shot to the burial park. I listen to music at a loud volume, usually a certain Warren Zevon live album. I roll down my windows and daydream the rest of the way to the cemetery.

When I park at the Woods 25 minutes later, I remember that I’ve forgotten my hat and will be feeling the full heat of a June day. I complain about it to Ellen as I walk from my car. “I hardly slept last night,” she responds. “I just figured I’d get out here as early as I could to get it set up. The grave still needs to be deeper because I guess they’re bringing him in a casket now.” Under Texas law, a bare body, or one in a permeable encasement such as a shroud, must be buried at least 24 inches deep. An impermeable case, such as a casket, must be covered by at least 18 inches of earth. The first few feet of topsoil is where the most aggressive organic activity takes place, turning whatever has been buried into plant food. We had dug 2.5 feet deep, enough that L.J. in a shroud would be covered with 24 inches of soil. But a family member had offered to build a casket at the last minute, and now we needed to dig at least another foot to ensure that a full 18 inches of soil would cover his little box.

It’s about 50-50 at the Woods when it comes to shrouds vs. caskets. Only one person has been buried without any covering at all—an infant from a Hindu family. Cremation is a custom in that religion, a manner of releasing and purifying the soul, but children are considered already enlightened, and so natural burial with nothing between the body and the earth is traditional. Ellen told me she had laid rose petals on the soil before the baby was placed in the grave, a gesture in line with why someone had offered to construct a casket for L.J. Burying a child in raw dirt isn’t easy.

Ellen wore an apron with a picture of a cat wearing a chef’s hat and the words “The Chef Breathlessly Awaits Your Order” printed beneath.

“I thought it was cute, you know? Kids like cats. Something kind of fun for today,” she explained. Ellen is good at remembering what’s most important and forgetting everything else. Today was all about being there for the kids.

Ellen had no connection to funerals or burials when she bought the Eloise Woods property in 2009. She had completed a doctorate in neuroscience at Stanford University before becoming a stay-at-home mom in Austin. She was so inspired by the show Six Feet Under, where she first learned about natural burial, that she decided to get into the death business herself. She became obsessed with creating a space in Austin where people can bury their dead themselves, a place where the memory of the deceased can continue to grow with the landscape.

Ellen is the reason I got into natural burial. Her accomplishments as an industry outsider signified a shift in my profession and revealed an opportunity largely untouched by traditional industry professionals. In Wisconsin, where I received my funeral director’s license, combining the business of funeral homes and cemeteries is prohibited under the state’s anti-combination law. Due to this 80-year-old statute, I became accustomed to hearing each business condemn the other, usually over outrageously high prices.

When I got to Texas, which allows the two businesses to be combined, it became apparent that such criticisms stemmed from a shared anxiety about the future of the industry as a whole. Cheap, efficient cremations have risen in popularity since the ’90s, eating into the conventional funeral industry’s profits. Families with little interest in embalming or holding a service make it harder for funeral homes to maintain their value.

Even Houston-headquartered Service Corporation International, the nation’s largest funeral corporation, appears to be acknowledging this change of venue. In October 2014, having lost a battle to overturn Wisconsin’s anti-combo law, Service Corporation opted to sell the last of its 16 Wisconsin funeral homes, keeping the five cemeteries it owns in the state. For people in search of a final resting place for their ashes or bones, a cemetery is the only choice. Natural burial parks that are accustomed to working with families without the involvement of a funeral home make that choice easier.

L.J.’s family surrounded his memorial stone with rocks carrying special notes
L.J.’s family surrounded his memorial stone with rocks carrying special notes. Owner Ellen MacDonald creates hand-engraved memorial stones for everyone buried at Eloise Woods, like this one featuring Donkey, L.J.’s favorite character from the movie Shrek.

The first burial I worked at Eloise Woods was for a young man in his late 20s. This last summer we buried three kids: one boy of grade-school age and two infants. There are more than 60 occupied plots in the park, a quarter of them for infants and children.

I met L.J.’s family for the first time about a month prior to his death. His three sisters attacked me with questions and whirled with an exuberance that only children seem able to bring to their first experience of death. Having never seen me or even heard my name, they grabbed my hands and Texie crawled into my arms as we set off to explore the graves.

“What happens if you are the last person on earth and everyone else dies?” Tori asked.

“I guess it would be very quiet,” I answered.

“Do you know the month and day you are going to die?” she asked. I said I did not.

“When you die, are you the same age forever?” Taylor Ann asked.

I thought about that carefully before saying “I think so,” though I also told them I was unsure. Then I asked what age they would want to be forever, and we all agreed we’d want to be somewhere in the teenage years, in the bloom of youth.

They picked the wild coreopsis that grows along the paths to put near L.J.’s gravesite. As we came upon the nearby grave of a 26-year-old man, his pensive portrait engraved on his stone, they wondered how he had died. I didn’t know, and that’s what I told them.

“My brother is going to die and come to Eloise Woods,” one of the girls said. At L.J.’s grave, their parents stood with a stroller into which was strapped their littlest brother. Jackie, their mother, looked only slightly overwhelmed and remarkably well put together. She was talking to Ellen about why she’d brought the girls. They’d been confused about L.J.’s future whereabouts, so Jackie thought it would be good for them to see the little 3-by-3-foot hole with the pile of dirt next to it. They laid rocks around the hole, and flowers inside of it.

The girls were fascinated by the wildlife of the park. It looks like a wooded campground, full of bugs, lizards and animals. Hoping to see a bunny, we walked a few more trails while they told me that L.J. slept a lot and no longer got in his wheelchair.

One of them asked me what happens when you die.

“Out here,” I said, pointing to some wildflowers, “you become a plant.”

“What!?” they yelped in confusion.

“Plants are going to grow out of his body?” Tori asked. I realized that I’d have to explain decomposition to complete the puzzle.

“Well, after we die, our bodies break down,” I stammered. I tried again: “They sort of fall apart.” It was no use. Looks of confusion and then boredom crossed their faces.

“Let’s go look for Mom,” said Taylor Ann. They took off, away from me.

They found their parents at the sheds and Ellen presented them with markers and rocks to scribble messages on for L.J. Tori wrote “Get Well Soon” on one. Texie drew a fairly sophisticated cat on another.

The more they colored, the more evident it became that L.J.’s death was an event they were preparing for in much the same way they would prepare for a birthday. To add extra excitement, the date would be a surprise, no matter how ready they thought they were.

Ellen’s cat apron was overshadowed by other sartorial matters once L.J.’s family arrived for his burial. Taylor Ann jumped out of the van barefoot and ran over to me. She had been too distracted to put on shoes before they’d left their house that morning. After parking the van, Jackie opened the door with a mixture of confusion and exhaustion on her face. She caught sight of the bare feet and became annoyed. “Where are your shoes? I told you to put on shoes!” she yelled.

Taylor Ann’s face suddenly reflected the gravity of the day, a collision of sadness and anger at having been yelled at by her mother, who had just lost a child. She burst into tears. Ellen quickly offered some extra sneakers she kept in the shed. Tori and Texie hopped out of the van wearing matching handmade black dresses with white cats on them and pink-and-blue cowboy boots. Taylor Ann stomped down Cardinal Trail toward L.J.’s grave wearing the same cat-pattern dress and borrowed sneakers five sizes too big.

The small group of guests held armfuls of sunflowers and babies. Kids ran wild while their parents alternated between quiet grief and chirping baby talk. The back door of the van remained open and unattended under a bright early-afternoon sun. Inside was a simple pine box about 4 feet long.

Jason, L.J.’s stepfather, and another man got inside the grave with shovels provided by Ellen and finished the diggingIt’s hard to explain how it felt that we’d been unable to complete that morning. The sisters posed with their sunflowers while I took pictures on my phone, and then they colored pictures to place inside the casket with L.J. After about half an hour, Jackie and Jason went to the van for the casket. Jackie’s face carried a look of powerful intention as they brought it to the grave and set it on the path while we all gathered around. They opened the top and laid it perpendicular across the casket, revealing little L.J. lying on his side, wrapped in a white blanket.

Everyone took turns writing on the top of the casket. The girls laid their pictures next to L.J.

A pastor wearing a rainbow sash covered in peace signs and yin-yang symbols started the ceremony. Taylor Ann, not quite grasping the mood, interrupted with an enthusiastic observation and was reprimanded loudly by Jackie. Still stinging from her earlier scolding, Taylor Ann began to pout until the pastor asked her to stand next to her. Together, they began to read a children’s poem that attempted to explain death.

The girls’ 2-year-old brother, Junior, out of his stroller for the first time I had ever seen, began to stalk the woods. While everyone stood sweating and patient, listening to the poem, Junior squatted outside the circle and began to taste the dirt. Jason alternated between chasing him and standing near Jackie, his expression lightening and darkening between the two situations. When the service was over, everyone said their goodbyes before placing L.J.’s casket into the earth.

It’s hard to explain how it felt to watch the girls embrace their dead brother in his casket. How they kissed his face and stroked his hair then delightedly shoveled dirt onto his grave. If I had to try, I would say it was like hearing a child’s first attempt to pronounce a new word. Ever afterward you hear that word differently, spoken without apprehension and full of love.

The next time I saw them I was measuring and marking plots in an open field. The girls came running at me with arms spread wide like I was someone they loved. I was ripe from working in the sun all day, but Texie clung to me like she had the first day we met. We talked about the other kids who were buried there and walked to one of their graves. Jackie asked questions about him. All the parents do this. They want the story on the kids, looking for similarities that will pull them together. I didn’t know much about the kid’s story, so I asked about L.J.’s.

At the sheds, I gave the girls the coloring books I had brought that day. Junior, red-faced and awake, rolled in the dirt. Jackie gave me the long version of L.J. ’s situation, which started with his being diagnosed with spina bifida, which isn’t a life-threatening condition. The events that led to his death began with him toppling over in his wheelchair. The accident apparently created fissures in his skull, through which cerebrospinal fluid drained. Jackie says his doctors misdiagnosed L.J.’s resulting condition for years before she finally convinced them to perform a 12-hour surgery, but it was too late to save him. He didn’t have to die, she said. She showed me pictures on her phone: L.J. with purple, puffy eyes and a zig-zag incision across the top of his skull. Then she showed me pictures of L.J. when he was healthy, with big brown eyes and a shy smile.

Eloise Woods owner and operator Ellen MacDonald
Eloise Woods owner and operator Ellen MacDonald maps the coordinates of a grave in Dunyah Garden, just off Cardinal Trail. Some portions of Eloise Woods are specifically dedicated, like Teva Garden, an exclusively Jewish section, and Sweet Angel Garden, for infants. Rainbow Bridge holds pet remains, but many people interred at Eloise Woods chose to have their pets buried by their side.

They don’t have the energy to file a lawsuit, but they are angry. The constant hospital visits put a huge strain on the family. They were briefly homeless, sleeping in a van in the hospital parking lot.

“That was my favorite because I got to lie down,” Taylor Ann said, smiling and drawing out “liiiiie doooown” and spreading her arms. Jackie gave her an odd smile, unsure if it was safe to laugh at her daughter’s black humor in front of me. I told Taylor Ann that what she’d said was oddly comical, and Jackie broke into a relieved smile. She said that when L.J. died, the family finally had a laugh. Home funerals, like parenting, bring unpredictable joys.

Jackie explained that after L.J. died, as they were washing him, they had pulled out his gastrostomy tube, creating a leak. They scrambled for the Krazy Glue to close the hole. They all laughed as Jackie recounted this, and the girls became giddy as they clamored to offer their favorite silly moments of the death. They told me about how L.J.’s body went floppy after he died and the girls played with his limbs like a doll. Texie had waved his hand, mimicking a lecturing adult. “I’m Dr. George, and you’re not sick,” she mimicked. The sisters burst into giggles again. I could see very clearly how deeply they loved one another, how making their mother smile and laugh was the most important thing in their world.

Jackie, flushed from the laughter, said L.J. would pull at her hair to bring her closer, right until the end. She said the girls all slept with him in the living room the night after his death. Texie told us that now he’s in Eloise Woods in a silly voice that her sisters made her repeat over and over while they laughed.

When I left that day, I cried all the way home.
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