Memento Mori: A Visit to Beech Grove

Something that is safe and pleasant right now is to take a walk in your local cemetery. In a twist that runs contrary to every impulse most people have, the living are dangerous right now, but the dead? Perfectly safe.

Cemeteries used to be popular gathering places, no different than other parks. People would have picnics on their family plot, as way to remember their loved ones and enjoy the garden atmosphere of the cemetery at the same time.

Beech Grove in Muncie, IN, which is my local public cemetery, is a 19th century cemetery that fully embodies the garden/park design of cemeteries in the last 200 years or so—a design now so ubiquitous that we consider it the traditional, normal way to bury loved ones, even though it’s quite a modern concept. It’s beautiful, and as photographing cemeteries happens to be a thing I really enjoy doing, I’d like to share it with you.

The gazing ball, fountain, and chapel/office at Beech Grove in Muncie, IN

This is the older part of the cemetery, with the original stone gate with gothic arches and the stone chapel, which now serves as the management office. In the summer, this pond is a fountain, but it’s still a bit too chilly in Muncie to be running fountains. The gazing ball is a nice Victorian touch.

One thing I look for in my photography is balance. I’m really fascinated by the interplay of natural things, like these trees, and manmade spaces. I like lines that move together, like this very unique family stone and the tree arching over it.

As you can tell, Beech Grove is a very large cemetery. This is, actually, only the tiniest part of it. I’ve been to this cemetery a number of times. There are still corners I haven’t visited yet. There’s an active railroad track running through the middle of it. There’s an entire military cemetery inside the larger cemetery. Honestly, it’s paradise for me.

One of the smaller mausoleums, actually

Beech Grove is home to a lot of mausoleums, which I absolutely love about it. Muncie was, until manufacturing lost its power in the Midwest as a core industry, home to a number of influential and wealthy families, most notably the Ball family (yes, of the mason jar fame) for which my employer Ball State University is named. They have a number of the most magnificent mausoleums in Beech Grove Cemetery, most of which are carefully aligned east-west so that the sun pours through the stained glass in the morning and evening.

A stained glass window inside a mausoleum

One of the advantages of coming to the cemetery with a camera is that you can see inside the mausoleums better with the lens sometimes. It was only with the camera that I could truly appreciate the detail on this Jesus as Good Shepherd stained glass in one of the mausoleums; otherwise, I’m just viewing it through the bars of the front door.

A stained glass window viewed through a mausoleum door

Other stained glass is more abstract, or has family initials in it. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful, even—or especially—viewed through the gates of the mausoleum. Remember what I said about composition, with complementary lines? I admit I had fun with this one.

One of the most fascinating, and sometimes heartbreaking, things to pay attention to when walking in a cemetery is what’s called “grave goods.” That is, the things that mourners leave behind with the dead. We see such things on roadside shrines, wherever an accident or murder has happened. On children’s graves, you’ll often find teddy bears or toy cars or other children’s items. Military graves are often adorned with a few coins, a signal by other military veterans that they came to remember the deceased. Grave goods are often deeply personal, and may represent superstitions or other folklore, and usually say a lot about the relationship of the deceased to the living who leave the grave goods. I have to admit, though, I don’t understand most of the grave goods I see. This bundle, for instance, on the door of a mausoleum. It reminds me of sage smudge sticks, but it’s lavender and a feather. I won’t presume to interpret it, but it was beautiful and I’m sure deeply meaningful to the people who left it there. If you know more, please tell me!

Interesting grave goods left on a mausoleum door

Moving away from the mausoleums, I did notice some other “behind the scenes” things that were visible that day. Although I suspect the fence is supposed to cover this area, there was a work area visible beyond a fence line, and I think it’s worth looking at what was there.

Many of the headstones in Beech Grove are sinking, because land in Muncie is soft, and the cemetery is actually on the banks of the river. I’ve been told that many of the oldest, smaller stones have actually sunken beneath the grass, and can only be found now with radar or other detection tools. If you are in a very old cemetery, especially a family plot where natural burials or plain wooden caskets were used, you can sometimes see where the graves are by where the ground has sunken in a grave shape. This is often where the body and casket have decayed, and thus the ground caves in a little. In order to fix this, modern cemeteries generally use metal or concrete vaults, like this one. The casket is laid inside the vault, and then the vault supports the ground above it to prevent the grave-sized dips in the lawn.

An empty grave vault waiting to be used

Another thing I watch for in a cemetery is unique grave markers. Like this one:

These appear to be.. ceramic bricks?

I don’t actually know what’s going on here. These appear to be ceramic bricks. It’s likely that this is a handmade marker made by the mourners themselves. I have seen similar constructions in poorer, more rural cemeteries. But I don’t know whatthe story is here. Again, if you have ideas, please comment!

This one, with the small statuette, is a little more typical of what I find in cemeteries to make grave markers more personal. This one is one of my favorite styles: the bench as grave marker. And I do enjoy photographing statuettes. I particularly love sculptures like this, which depict draped fabric, and which have some where and weathering on them. She really is beautiful.

A statuette of a mourning woman adorns a bench-style grave marker

Anyway, thank you for taking a walk through my local cemetery with me. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Please enjoy your own local cemeteries; they’re very pleasant places, you know.

The sun sets at Beech Grove Cemetery

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