Cemeteries provide more than Halloween tales of terror and dead-calm tranquility the rest of the year.
Some of us gladly gravitate to cemeteries during this time of year, packing a wild range of emotions for the ride. Halloween brings on graveyard history tours, ghost stories and hunts for the haunted, although much of it is going virtual in 2020.
We seek the thrill, adrenalin rush, and distraction of frightening ourselves. Even this year, when real life seems far from calm or boring.
We also—on purpose or by accident—might learn about our roots, resilience, and riches during a cemetery stroll.
No Wisconsin cemetery, arguably, has a higher profile than Forest Home in Milwaukee. Self-guided tours lead to the final resting place for beer barons and sausage kings, the city’s forefathers and Civil War heroes, politicians and industrialists. Actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane are here. So are Harley-Davidson’s co-founders.
Buried in a mass grave near the Peshtigo Fire Museum, Marinette County, are around 350 unidentified people who died when an Oct. 8, 1871 fire wiped out the community, burned 2,400 square miles and killed at least 1,200, a far greater loss of life than the Great Chicago Fire, which happened on the same day but garnered significantly more attention.
At the 42-acre Copper Culture State Park, Oconto, is the state’s oldest known cemetery, a 6,000-year-old interment spot for about four dozen Native Americans. Copper tools, bracelets, and other artifacts were discovered there too.
Although the seasonal, in-person cemetery tours are largely suspended, some are accessible online. Wisconsin Veterans Museum presents a ”Talking Spirits” virtual tour of Forest Hill in Madison. History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, offers “Spiritualists and Hauntings” and “Secrets in the Stones,” starring Riverside Cemetery.
My personal favorite for contemplating life and the afterlife is more unknown and architecturally unique, a reminder of the area’s agricultural heritage and of how well muscle sometimes intersects with artistry.
Cemetery Lane—a dead end road, appropriately—leads to Greenbush Cemetery, established in 1848 and the Red Oaks area of Kettle Moraine State Forest, Sheboygan County. That’s where my parents are buried. The name of my brother is on the 20-year-old family headstone. So is mine.
I visit this tidy place to remember long-gone neighbors and to read the messages we leave behind. I notice tombstone etchings that acknowledge farmland tilled, deer hunted, trucks driven, two lives entwined as one. Hearty mums brighten the soon-dull landscape during this time of year. Tinkling wind chimes, little angel figurines and the occasional birdhouse tug at the heart.
How reassuring to have this peaceful, personable location—with a pretty backdrop of woods and farm fields—as my default position when the Big Sleep arrives.
There’s good reason for you to visit too. What makes Greenbush Cemetery structurally unusual is not a chapel or crypts, mausoleum or monument design, but handcrafted stone fencing that nearly surrounds the acreage, where two fieldstone buildings still stand as well.
To say glacial movement thousands of years ago left behind a lot of rocks is an understatement. Picking stones from freshly plowed fields, one spring after the next, was a rite of passage when I was a farm kid, four miles northwest of the cemetery.
Fieldstones became a commonplace material for building—or at least foundation—construction. Rock piles divided rural property lines too, and some of the work was a tribute to the stone walls of Ireland.
Volunteer Clint Chapman built two sides of Greenbush Cemetery’s stone fence—roughly 900 feet in length—more than 110 years ago. Records are sketchy, but the barrier apparently separated gravesites from grazing cattle.
In 2013, retiree Joe Weinbauer began his work—by hand—to expand the craftsmanship. He has built about one-third mile (1,760 feet) of sturdy, dry-stone fencing, which requires lots of hauling and lifting but no mortar.
Not bad for an 88-year-old who was raised on a Sheboygan County farm, moved to the town of Greenbush nearly 60 years ago, and worked at a nearby Borden plant as boiler watchman.
The Borden cheese factory no longer exists, and the area’s stone fences are getting harder to find too. “Most of the county’s stone fences have been removed for property development and road improvements,” writes county historian Beth Dippel. “They’re deemed costly to maintain and a waste of land.”
Such a shame, and such a blessing that Weinbauer’s legacy embraces Greenbush’s little patch of eternity.