An old, dark cemetery may seem like the perfect spot for some spooky Halloween scares, but for people like Beth Wilson-Shoemaker, they are portals into times long gone and the lives of people so often forgotten.
Wilson-Shoemaker has had a fascination with cemeteries since she was a young child. She remembers playing outside and stumbling upon graves near an old one room schoolhouse in her home town.
Since then, she has had a passion for visiting, photographing and even preserving the final resting places of people who she says can provide information about plagues, disasters and historical events — people who mattered to their friends and family.
Wilson-Shoemaker added that when cemeteries are not maintained they become lost and forgotten as well as the people who are buried there.
Though her love of cemeteries began when she was very young, it was not until recently that Wilson-Shoemaker started turning her passion into action.
“Basically, about five or six years ago, I started wondering around looking at old cemeteries. The older the better; the more lost the better and the more broken down because that means to me they need to be remembered. They need to be preserved,” she explained.
The cemetery buff explained that she first started photographing gravestones as a way to preserve them through photography while also creating awareness.
“I wanted people to see them as I do. To me they’re just beautiful,” Wilson-Shoemaker commented.
Wilson-Shoemaker often goes out with a machete and tromps through high grass to find old graves taken by time. She finds gravestones that have crumbled to the ground or been swallowed up by weeds and earth.
“These sites are out there, and they’re being forgotten quickly,” she stated. “It’s stunning how many are in disrepair. They just get forgotten in the woods.”
Recently, Wilson-Shoemaker has gotten more involved in the preservation of cemeteries, learning to probe for and uncover stones that have become buried, to scrape stones to rid them of destructive moss and to find graves to get them marked and recorded.
She works through the Find a Grave website to locate graves for those searching for a family member or to report discovered graves and even cemeteries that have been lost due to lack of maintenance.
Walking through Portsmouth’s Greenlawn Cemetery, Wilson-Shoemaker clarified the significance of cemeteries. As she walked the gravestones, she pointed to the graves of individuals relevant to local history. Among the aisles of grave markers, she pointed to the stone of Major John Bell, explaining that he was the first permanent settler of Scioto County.
Wilson-Shoemaker then led to “the Tanner Stone,” the stone of Joseph Tanner, who died Sept. 21, 1836. The stone is engraved with the story of his death, stating Tanner was killed when a cannon was fired on honor of the visit of President Andrew Jackson. The stone further explains that he survived 21 hours after the accident.
“What’s great about these old stones is the epitaphs,” Wilson-Shoemaker commented.
As she read about a lost lover, she stated, “It’s almost less about the person who is here and more about the person who was left. The art of the epitaph is lost.”
As she continued, Wilson-Shoemaker pointed to the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers, entire families killed by flu, prominent Scioto County families and children who died in accidents. She also talked about other historical information that could be observed.
For example, Greenlawn is the final resting place of Bessie Tomlin, the only person to die in the devastating 1937 flood; however, she also pointed out the graves of numerous children who died within a year of the flood. She explained that these children are also victims of the flood because they contracted and eventually died of illness brought by the food waters and resulting living conditions.
She also pointed out interesting cemetery tidbits such as graves that once had bells. The bells would be attached to a string that was tied to the finger of the deceased to prevent people from being buried alive. She also pointed to zinkers, which are metal markers sold by traveling salesman used in obelisks. During prohibition, the obelisks would be knocked out so moonshiners could hide moonshine behind them.
Wilson-Shoemaker cautioned about the importance of caring for cemeteries, commenting, “These people matter, still matter. When we don’t preserve our cemeteries, those people are gone from history. How many people are we plowing under?”
She added that preservation is extensive, but there are things people can do including using a plastic scraper to remove moss, reporting graves on Find a Grave and mowing. She also added that military markers are free and can be requested for graves of military before they are lost.
“This is our history. This is our past,” Wilson-Shoemaker said. “We all get into cemeteries during Halloween, but we need to get into preservation year-round.”
For a look at Wilson-Shoemaker’s photographs taken of local and nonlocal cemeteries, visit get Facebook page — A Grave Site: Cemetery Photographs by BAWS.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.