When I was a teen looking for a little adventure, my friends and I would make a nighttime visit to a country church cemetery known as Moonshine. There, we looked for signs of the ghosts of the Blue Eyed Six who we believed had been hanged and buried in the cemetery for a murder. That was about as much as I knew of the matter, and it was enough. After all, the place was haunted. What more did we need?
Halloween and cemeteries seem to be a natural pairing, no doubt because ghosts, tombstones and the like make for appropriately scary images. But I eventually came to see cemeteries for much more than a place to get a good scare. I developed a fascination with the epitaphs, the dates that defined a life and the traditions of burials that came with various cultures. And, as I’ve just learned, that makes me a “tombstone tourist.”
My interest in cemeteries as a place of interest beyond the usual boo-worthy factor was piqued when I moved to Alaska and discovered the Eklutna Historical Park, home to the Russian Orthodox church and neighboring cemetery, where the graves of Athabaskan Natives are marked by Spirit Houses — small wood house-like structures, most with brightly colored roofs — and the Orthodox Christian three-barred cross.
That interest took a greater hold somewhat accidentally when I returned from the wilds of Alaska to live temporarily in a Pennsylvania city of row houses and railroad tracks. There seemed to be nary a patch of green anywhere until I discovered a massive tree-filled cemetery three blocks from my apartment. I whiled away a lot of autumn afternoons wandering that cemetery, gazing upon the most basic thin white markers, some dating back to the 18th Century, as well as elaborate, sculptured monuments of angels, tiny houses, saints and crosses.
In Colorado, I saw for the first time tombstones with photos on them. Someone said it was an Italian tradition. I could never figure out how they kept the photo — encased in heavy plastic or glass, it seemed to me — intact over all those years. In writing this, I learned they are actually cast in ceramic. In Denver, I learned of the Woodmen of the World whose members’ burial plots are marked with stone tree stumps, and also of potter’s fields, where the poor or unknown are interred.
If there is a top tombstone tourism destination in the US, I’m guessing it must be New Orleans. I took a guided tour of the St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, where the first thing I learned was not to ever go to the cemetery alone, lest you be mugged. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating place with all the graves above ground due to the high water table, and frequently adorned with all manner of flowers and voodoo symbols.
Perhaps my oddest cemetery story comes from an exchange with my in-laws on their first visit here. “Is there a place around here called Siletz?” they asked. “Yes,” the hubs said. Next thing I knew, they were bound for an old cemetery about 15 miles east of our new home. Turns out my husband’s great-great uncle is buried there. Until then, we had no idea any of our families had ever set foot in Oregon.
All this talk of cemeteries — and I do have a reason which I’ll get to in a moment — got me curious about the Blue Eyed Six. Their crime was taking out a life insurance policy on an impoverished local man, then paying someone to drown him. They were not hanged or even buried at Moonshine, though their unfortunate victim is. And who knows, perhaps his tormented spirit can be sensed among those old stones. But what matters is not if the cemetery is haunted, but that all these years later, I was inspired to learn a little more about the history of my hometown.
And now, we have that opportunity here on the Oregon Coast. Beginning on Friday, Oct. 20, the North Lincoln County History Museum is partnering for the second year with the Taft Pioneer Cemetery Association and Theatre West to host A Tour to Die For. While the name might sound a bit ominous, it’s actually a take on an inscription on a stone at the cemetery, “A View to Die For.” On the tour, visitors will hear the life stories of six of the individuals buried there, as portrayed by graveside actors.
Stay tuned for an upcoming story in Oregon Coast TODAY about the tour or go to http://tourtodiefor.com/
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.