Cemeteries: A Great Place for Geodorks

For a geodork such as I, few urban places are as enticing as cemeteries. Whenever I visit one, I always find wonderful rocks. Typically, the older tombstones are my favorite because they reflect local geology; they were often the only rock people could afford to use. Eventually, though, changing finances and fashion lead to people seeking tombstones with a non-local pedigree and stone from around the world began to arrive. Here are a few of my favorites.

King’s Chapel Burying Ground in Boston - In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “In that burial ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built…[O]n this simple slab of slate [a metamorphosed shale]—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: — ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES.” As I have been known to opine, apparently the book is “based on a true story,” or perhaps not, but I am sure that Hawthorne would have a hard time imagining Demi Moore as Hester Prynne.

Middletown, Connecticut - Joseph Barrett whose obituary noted “So deeply was he engaged in this work that he neglected his profession and became a monomaniac on the subject of bird tracks. He saw all manner of fossils in city walks which no other eyes were able to see, and in his peregrinations about the town would stop suddenly, look at a stone, bring out a sheet of wrapping paper and, laying it out on the walk, draw upon it whatever his fancy painted, write the place where the stone lay and date its discovery.” He was so monomaniacal about tracks that the back of his tombstone features them, or what are better known as footprints from a three-toed dinosaur. The good doctor was clearly a man after my own heart.

Morton, Minnesota - Home of some of the oldest rock on Earth, the 3.54 billion year old Morton Gneiss, which was widely used in the town’s cemetery and curbs, as well as in cemeteries in Seattle. Certainly makes me ponder about time and life and how many beings have come and gone since this rock formed.

Indiana and Seattle and elsewhere - One of my favorite styles of tombstone is the treestump. Some are decorated with tools of woodworkers, in particular for those associated with the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance, and its affiliate Women of Woodcraft. Many have symbolic decorations. A broken branch represents a life cut short (the number of branches often indicates the number of children of the deceased). A frog alludes to resurrection. Doves symbolize peace. Squirrels were for planners, who stowed necessities for the future. In Indiana, most of the treestump tombstones are made of the 330-million year old Salem Limestone [a sedimentary rock composed of calcite].

One can find most of these types of rocks in any cemetery you visit. In addition, you can also find lovely examples of lichens, weathering, and erosion, as well as some truly outstanding epitaphs. So next time you want an interesting place to explore, to find some quiet, or need a geology fix, try your local burying ground.

For those living in Tacoma, or know people who live there, I will be interviewed as part of the Foss Waterway Seaport Maritime Weekend on August 28, at 3pm. We’ll be outside on their big stage. The subject will be Homewaters. I will have books for sale or you can buy one now from me through my website.