I’ve never seen a mortsafe. I’ve heard about them. I’ve heard about mortsafes in the South and Europe, but not in Pennsylvania. Then I heard about not one, but two in a small cemetery in Catawissa. This type of mortsafe was popular in Scotland, but there is some evidence that these two are the only “caged” graves in the U.S..

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This is fun? I don’t get it.

Marker damaged by vandals Credit: Nabill K. Mark/CDT

Marker damaged by vandals

Damage done at the Boalsburg Cemetery is estimated to be in excess of $100,000. Credit: Nabill K. Mark/CDT

Damage done at the Boalsburg Cemetery is estimated to be in excess of $100,000.


The Boalsburg Cemetery was found vandalized Sunday with approximately 50 tombstones damaged. Credit: Nabill K. Mark/CDT

This was done last Saturday night. People just “out having fun?” I don’t get it.

The markers that were tipped over can be righted. The ones that are broken are gone forever. Possibly new ones can be made, but the originals are from the Civil War era in a place where Memorial Day was purportedly founded.

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New and Creepy

The other day my boss told me about an old cemetery he came across and was wondering if I had been there. It’s new to me so I think this weekend I might go take a look.

The conversation turned to some of the things I’ve seen recently in cemeteries. As I told my mom, if the grave isn’t at least 100 years old, I’m not really interested. Unless there’s a war marker. Those are cool. Sad but cool.

The chat moved on to recent developments in the trappings of death. There are several “fashions” that have recently popped up that I find a little … odd. Quite frankly, while I feel old cemeteries, even abandoned ones, to be calm and peaceful places, new cemeteries are getting creepy.

Mike asked if I had seen the solar Christmas lights. They might not be Christmas lights exactly, but they are small solar lights. Ok, so we put flowers or s small stone on a grave. I’ve seen holiday decorations on old graves. Christmas lights are just a shade over the edge.

I wouldn’t doubt there are some solar fairy lights out there in cemeteries. The first time I saw a solar light at a marker, it gave me pause. Why put a solar light at a marker? Cemeteries close at dusk, so those lights don’t help the living find a path. The dead don’t need nightlights. There’s something a little Bonnie Blue Butler about it — Mammy repeating to Melanie what Rhett said to Scarlett about not burying Bonnie “when you know she’s afraid of the dark.” Well, since the person is dead, that’s no longer an issue for them, I’m guessing. They’ve moved on. If they haven’t, that would be the first ghost I’ve heard of to be afraid of the dark.

Flashy markers are nothing new. Look at the pyramids. As markers go, you’d have to admit, those are pretty flashy.

A recent development in marker flash are the scenic carvings on the headstones. Fishing scenes, prop planes, a beloved pet are all common themes when you go beyond the usual symbols and names. Recently full-color drawings of “My RV” or favorite model of car or whatever, have started to be engraved on the stone.

The ultimate in flash that I’ve seen around this area is the multimedia addition. There are photos of the dead and a little speaker or video player. Favorite music and/or a video will play at the grave. But people! The ones triggered by a motion detector are just wrong! There is nothing worse than walking through a nice, peaceful cemetery, respectfully picking my way though the markers, taking photos and talking to the interred, then suddenly some music plays or a voice speaks from the grave behind me. It puts the heart in me sideways. Seriously! Someone could get killed that way!

As music goes, I find “Rock of Ages” to be worse than “Are You Going to Be My Girl.” I have given this some thought as to what sort of music would be good, if I had such a thing at my grave. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is one my mom would want. I’m thinking Matchbox 20’s “Disease” pushes the borders of taste. But I think I’d want one of my singer friends to record an appropriately altered version of “Poor Judd is Dead” from “Oklahoma.”

Nah. There are an amazing number of people who, while walking through a cemetery, would lack the perspective and sense of humor necessary to cope with hearing that when visiting poor, old Aunt Fannie and Uncle Fred.

Besides, that’s just creepy.

Heat and cemeteries

They do not mix! As a general rule, there is way too much sun in cemeteries on nice days. When it gets brutally hot, like today, don’t even attempt them. All the things you think of for beating the heat are either not available or downright banned.

I went looking in Union several days ago. The bell had me intrigued. I went early-ish morning. Predawn is a no-no. Most are “closed” dusk to dawn. The reason for this is not that they don’t want ghost hunters. I think caretakers would be fine with ghost hunters.The problem is vandals and unfortunately vandals often claim they do vandalism while “searching for ghosts.”

Anyway. Back to the bell. I got a look close up and personal. several things came to light on closer inspection: a) The arch doesn’t have any inscription at all. b) The arch is placed parallel to the iron gate entrance. c) The bell is wooden.

So much for the “dead ringer” theory. So much for the “my angel” theory. The last theory I have at the moment is the “just-because-I-friggin’-want-to” theory. I’m leaning toward this.

I found a couple flag markers I hadn’t seen before. The first is from the Spanish-American War veterans. Apparently this one is rather rare.

I got the Puerto Rico and Cuba parts. It was the Philippine Islands that made my brow furrow for a moment.

The next rare flag marker is one from the KGE — the Knights of the Golden Eagle.  Ta fraternal order founded in 1873, they are much like the Masons. Their claim to fame is that one of their members assassinated McKinley.

  Now, how freaky is this?

The skull looks like it has a bow in what would be its  hair — if it weren’t a skull. Or like a bow tie got twisted. All the images look a bit child-like, as if they asked a member’s 4-yr.-old son (in that era, a fraternal order wouldn’t ask a daughter) to draw their emblem.

I have to get back there as soon as the weather breaks a bit. There are zinc markers I need to inspect!


Last week a friend and I went to Gettysburg to tour the battlefield. It was bloody hot — around 92* C — and very humid. So it was very like the weather on the 3 days of battle. In fact, it was warmer than the day of Pickett’s Charge. I had the advantage of not wearing a wool uniform, not carrying gear and having air conditioning in then car.

I stood where Lee sat mounted on his horse, meeting the survivors.

I stood at the Copse of Trees,

The Angle, the approximate place where Armistead was fatally wounded,

The Highwater Mark. It was the first time I stood in these places as an adult. The impact hadn’t lessened at all.

I always had an emotional connection with Lewis Armistead. That connection only became stronger when Richard Jordan played him in the movie. That was Armistead’s last battlefield and Jordan’s last movie. I watched Gettysburg on video not long ago. The instant before Armistead dies, I paused the movie. For that instant I was able to save both Lewis and Richard.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. I restarted the DVD and both Lo and Richard died.

An interesting thing happened to me that day. My mind was mostly on the doings of North Carolinians during those three days of battle. Most of the other tourists/amateur historians I talked to that day were from North Carolina. I think that was one of the best parts of the day — meeting other amateur historians.

It was odd going to a place where I had been before and had created some spotty memories. There are places where the topography is exactly the same — The Peach Orchard, The Angle and the High Water Mark. There are places where the topography is entirely different — Devil’s Den. For some reason I think of Devil’s Den as above Little Round Top, almost part of Big Round Top. And it is so not there.

This photo was taken from Little Round Top, looking down into Devil’s Den. I love the sign! All over the Park, they are planting vegetation that was there at the time of the battle. There will be peach trees in the Peach Orchard, wheat in the Wheatfield, and native plants in the uncultivated areas. That’s a terrific idea!

I want to go back in cooler weather. Maybe I’ll take one of the tours on horseback.