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Secrets and surprises from gravestones

Friday, June 1st, 2012 | Posted by

Since the first burial at Santa Rosa's Rural Cemetery in 1854, more than 5,400 men, women and children have been interred there. (Press Democrat)

By MICHAEL SHUFRO / Santa Rosa Correspondent

On a gravel road of big oaks and old graves, Rebekah Thomas revisits snippets of lore and history. These days she leads tours through Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery as a volunteer, but Thomas first visited the cemetery on the same tour 13 years ago.

Ever since, she has been a prominent figure in the world of the deceased. She runs the historical ball, helped develop the lamplight committee and created the popular Dark Side Tour.

She writes theatrical vignettes performed on the hallowed grounds and is the editor of the graveyard’s newsletter. Over time, she has watched the volunteers grow from a numbered handful to more than 75 members able to sweep in hundreds of guests at big events.

On Saturday at 10 a.m., Thomas will lead the Stones and Images Tour, a free guided walk that runs once every two years. Visitors learn about the headstones and the myriad symbols and images engraved on them. Three more tours will follow at 10:20 a.m., 10:40 a.m. and 11 a.m.

“Those who have never been to the cemetery will be impressed with how beautiful it is just on its own,” she said. “But this particular tour will give a lot of knowledge about how to decode the meanings behind many of the stones and symbols.”

Since the first burial in 1854, more than 5,400 men, women and children have been interred there, in looming mausoleums and beneath wooden and hollowed metal headstones, each revealing clues about how they lived and died.

While many of the stones are simple, the cemetery has several works of art. Among them are a literal bed of stone, a deftly carved pillow and a graven tree stump in homage to the Woodmen of the World. Some graves have nothing more than a large box set between rosebushes. Others have piles of stones stacked to look like a crumbled pillar, representing the end of life.

Even the type of rock bears some kind of significance, Thomas said. With no marble quarries in the West, almost all of the graveyard’s marble was brought from Georgia or Mississippi. In one shady grove, a ruddy obelisk made of Peterhead Granite was built from the ballasts of ships that sailed all the way from Scotland.

Near the foot of the trail, tour-goers visit the grave of Albert “Boss” Overton, a former Santa Rosa mayor who died shortly before the turn of the 20th century. His headstone, made of Georgia Granite, is believed to weigh about 11,000 pounds. How it was carried into the cemetery remains a mystery. Words shaped like tree branches, an unfurled sword lily and an unrolled scroll are carved into the rock.

“Each signifies something different,” Thomas said. “The lily symbolizes the sorrow of the Virgin Mary, and the scroll represents ancient wisdom.”

With such an enormous array of symbols, emblems and images on thousands of stones, all 17 acres of the hallowed grounds are riddled with a kind of hieroglyphic cemetery language. Thomas translates the hidden meanings behind a helmet, ivy, weeping willows, the cross and the crown, lambs, handshakes, books, stars, broken flowers and many others.

“Roses for instance often signify silence, truth or love,” she said. “On a child’s grave rosebuds represent innocence, while on an adult’s grave they represent secrets and pain.”

The tour also examines the epitaphs scrawled on the tombstones. With decades of vandalism, graffiti and erosion, many have become illegible. Regardless, volunteers keep researching to preserve the history of those buried there.

“My first stop is always at the (Public Library) annex and looking at obits on the microfilm,” Thomas said. “I’ll research through books, too, and then there are always the people who come to us with stories and questions about their relatives.”

One was a 90-year-old named Mr. Anderson. He contacted Thomas to reminisce about his ancestors and led her to a pond he used to visit. Until then no one else knew about it.

Of the 20 or so volunteers on the cemetery committee, each plays a niche role. Cemetery archivist Sandy Frary has scoured countless documents in search of answers. She also has made rubbings of more than 500 epitaphs, helped facilitate inquests, worked with the coroner’s office and examined countless individual stories.

“It’s all of Santa Rosa’s pioneers and people here,” Thomas said. “When you’re doing this much research, you really get to know the residents who dwell here and can sense the time they came from. The tours, I believe, help provide a window into that world.”

Stones and Images tours are free, and no reservations are required. Meet at the Franklin Gate. More info: 543-3292 or go to ci.santa-rosa.ca.us.


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Ann Hutchinson is our Santa Rosa correspondent.
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