Alkaline Hydrolysis: Water Cremation and the “Ick Factor”

Note: Today’s post is a little graphic in describing how cremation works.

I recently wrote about the history of cremation in America and how it’s becoming more popular every year. However, an alternative form of cremation is gaining attention that’s truly different. Resomation, bio-cremation and flameless cremation are a few of the buzzwords used, but the scientific name for the procedure is alkaline hydrolysis (AH).

So how do you cremate a body without a fire?

This graphic from Resomation, Ltd. explains the alkaline hydrolysis process. It does not address the less pleasant issues attached to it.

This graphic from Resomation, Ltd. explains the alkaline hydrolysis process. The company was founded in 2007 in Glasgow, Scotland by Sandy Sullivan. Ironically, AH is still not legal in the U.K. at this time.

Alkaline hydrolysis is a water-based chemical resolving process using strong alkali in water at temperatures of up to 350F (180C), which quickly reduces the body to bone fragments. Experts say it’s basically a very accelerated version of natural decomposition that occurs to the body over many years after it is buried in the soil.

AH was originally developed in Europe in the 1990s as a method of disposing of cows infected with mad cow disease. In England, AH for humans is not fully legalized yet. It’s usually referred to as resomation there because the commercial process was first introduced and trademarked by Resomation, Ltd. They received the Jupiter Big Idea Award (from actor Colin Firth, no less) at the 2010 Observer Ethical Awards.

Yes, that's Colin Firth (aka Mr. Darcy) on the end. He presented the 2010 Jupiter Big Idea Award to Resomation, Ltd. at the Observer Ethics Awards. The firm's founds, Sandy Sullivan, is standing to his left.

Yes, that’s Colin Firth (aka Mr. Darcy) on the end. He presented the Jupiter Big Idea Award to Resomation, Ltd. at the 2010 The Observer Ethical Awards. The firm’s founder, Sandy Sullivan, is standing to his left. Photo courtesy of The Observer.

The University of Florida and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota already use AH to dispose of cadavers. It’s not surprising that both states were among the first to legalize its use. The other states are Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, Kansas, Maine and Maryland.

But why would someone want to do what amounts to liquifying the body with lye instead of traditional cremation? Some people worry about the carbon footprint left behind by traditional cremation. AH is supposed to remove that problem.

In the traditional process that uses fire, cremating one corpse requires two to three hours and more than 1,800 degrees of heat. That’s enough energy to release 573 lbs. of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to environmental analysts. In many cases, dental compounds such as fillings also go up in smoke, sending mercury vapors into the air unless the crematorium has a chimney filter.

Made of solid pine, this cremation casket is sold by the ABC Caskets Factory in Los Angeles, Calif. At $475, the "Highland Pine" is the least expensive casket they sell. Some people simply opt for a cardboard box to save the expense. Picture courtesy of ABC Caskets Factory.

Made of solid pine, this cremation casket is sold by the ABC Caskets Factory in Los Angeles, Calif. At $475, the “Highland Pine” is the least expensive casket they sell. Some people simply opt for a cardboard box to save the expense. Photo courtesy of ABC Caskets Factory.

During AH, a body is placed in a steel chamber along with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide. Air pressure inside the vessel is increased to about 145 pounds per square inch, and the temperature is raised to about 355F. After two to three hours, the corpse is reduced to bones that are then crushed into a fine, white powder. That dust can be scattered by families or placed in an urn. Dental fillings are separated out for safe disposal.

Anthony A. Lombardi, division manager for Matthews Cremation, demonstrates a bio-cremation (AH) machine. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel.

Anthony A. Lombardi, division manager for Matthews Cremation, demonstrates a bio-cremation (AH) machine. Photo courtesy of Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/The Orlando Sentinel.

AH is purported to use about one-seventh of the energy required for traditional cremation. Some studies indicate that AH could save 30-million board feet of hardwood each year from cremation coffins. That’s very attractive to some people. However, one question remains. What happens to what’s leftover from the process (besides the ashes)?

That’s when the “Ick Factor” comes in.

Leftover liquids – including acids and soaps from body fat – plus the added water and chemicals, are disposed of through a waste water treatment process, according to John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

In other words, it goes down the drain like everything else.

“It’s very similar to the treatment of excess water from any (industrial) facility. In fact, it probably has less of a chemical signature than would you find (in liquids) coming out of most (industrial) plants,” Ross said.

Ryan Cattoni, funeral director at AquaGreen Dispositions LLC, offers the first "flameless cremation" in Illinois. Photo courtesy of  Brian Jackson/The Sun-Times.

Ryan Cattoni, funeral director at AquaGreen Dispositions LLC, offers the first “flameless cremation” (AH) in Illinois. “[The manufacturer] said they can put a 500-pound person in the machine,” Cattoni says. Photo courtesy of Brian Jackson/The Chicago Sun-Times.

Still, the visual picture that creates is not very attractive. In fact, a 2008 article about AH said the thick coffee-colored liquid left behind resembles motor oil and has a strong ammonia smell. Not exactly something you want to put on a colorful marketing brochure.

AH became legal in Colorado in 2011. Steffani Blackstone, executive director of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, spoke frankly about the “Ick Factor” when legislation to approve AH was being crafted.

“People seem to have objections when they actually think about that too long. They ask: ‘Well what happens? Does (the body) turn to sludge?’ And the thought of grandma being sludge is kind of disgusting to them.”

Some have compared the remaining processed liquid after AH to motor oil. That's not an image most people want to have in their head when remembering a loved on. Photo courtesy of Alf van Beem/Museum terug in de tijd, the Netherlands.

Some have described the remaining processed liquid after AH as having the color and consistency of motor oil. That’s not an image most people want to have in their head when remembering a loved one. Photo courtesy of Alf van Beem/Museum terug in de tijd, the Netherlands.

While currently legal in only eight states, the movement to make it so in others is real. In New York, the legislation became known as “Hannibal Lechter’s Bill.” New Hampshire legalized AH in 2006 but banned it a year later. In Ohio, the Catholic Church is a vocal opponent to AH and it has yet to be fully approved there.

Jeff Edwards, an Ohio funeral director who performed several AH procedures before being told to stop, filed a lawsuit in March 2011 against the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors after ODH quit issuing permits for AH body disposals. A judge ruled that ODH and the board had the authority to determine what is an acceptable form of disposition of a human body, as set forth in the Ohio Revised Code.

The cost of an AH machine can range from $200,000 to $400,000, depending on its size and capacity. That hefty price tag did not stop Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, Fla., from becoming the first in the state to purchase one to provide AH to their clients. They refer to AH as “flameless cremation”.

Funeral home president and owner John McQueen said in a 2011 article that he planned to charge clients the same prices for AH cremations as the traditional ones, which can cost from $1,000 to $2,000.

Anderson McQueen became the first funeral home in Florida to offer alkaline hydrolysis to its clients. They call it "flameless cremation".

Anderson-McQueen became the first funeral home in Florida to offer alkaline hydrolysis to its clients. They call it “flameless cremation”.

So what do I think? In the end, traditional cremation sends its byproducts up into the air. AH sends them into the water for treatment. Which is better for the environment? I don’t know. I’m not fond of the idea of being burned up or liquified, especially the latter. The “Ick Factor” does give me pause.

A pine box in the cemetery still sounds better to me.

pineboxwithflowers

Highway to Heaven: The Death of Respect and Funeral Processions

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility.

Truth be told, people still don’t like stopping for death. Emily Dickinson knew what she was talking about.

In past posts, I’ve mentioned how my life in the South has shaped my views on death and funerals. If one thing has stayed with me, it’s the level of respect most Southerners show for the dead.

This is a picture of the funeral procession for seven children in Pennsylvania who died in a house first. The purple and white flags marked "funeral" are typically used by most funeral homes or they ask drivers to simply turn on their headlights. Photo courtesy of The Patriot News.

This is a picture of the funeral procession for seven children in Pennsylvania who died in a house fire. The purple and white flags marked “funeral” are typically used by most funeral homes or they ask drivers to simply turn on their headlights or hazard lights. Photo courtesy of The Patriot News.

Funeral processions (meaning the line of vehicles that follow the hearse when it leaves the church with the deceased to go to a cemetery) were not an everyday event in the small town where I grew up. But I do remember them. What stood out in my mind is that in every case, unless it was impossible to do so, almost every driver pulled over to the side of the road as the line of cars slowly went by. I remember asking my father why the first time I saw it.

He simply said, “It’s out of respect for the person who died.”

Fast forward to this week as I was doing some Internet research on this topic. I found an etiquette discussion board where people were hashing out the issue of funeral procession manners. One person described how her “DH” (dear husband) was forced by the police to pull over due to a lengthy funeral procession for a local boy who had been killed in a high-profile shooting. A tragic event, to be sure.

Apparently, having to do this was a major affront to her husband. She wrote:

DH was appalled. He was perfectly willing to give them space and be respectful but what about the rest of the public? Are they truly supposed to just shut down because someone they don’t know died?

Yes, ma’am, they are. It’s called respect.

Community Motorized Escort Service of Memphis escorts a funeral procession  for Harrison's Funeral Home Inc. Owner Marcus Eddins said drivers often are distracted and don't notice the man on the motorcycle waving a procession of cars through. Photo courtesy of The Commercial Appeal.

Community Motorized Escort Service of Memphis escorts a funeral procession for Harrison’s Funeral Home, Inc. Notice the drivers on the right who have pulled over out of respect. That’s becoming hard to find these days. Photo courtesy of The Commercial Appeal.

Life is a lot more hectic in this modern age. The pace is faster and people have places to go, things to do. Even in the South, the practice of pulling over (especially here in Atlanta) is something I sadly see less often. The city “too busy to hate” can often be the city too busy to care.

But how often, really, do we encounter funeral processions these days? I see maybe two to three a year, tops. Is it that hard to give a life that has passed a few minutes of respect? Does it matter that you don’t know them?

No, it isn’t always possible to pull over. Maybe you’re in a congested highway and there’s no way you can safely do so. I understand that. Nobody should risk their life or that of their family for a funeral procession. That’s crazy.

But if you can, you should.

One issue I won’t quibble on concerns drivers cutting through a funeral procession to save time. It’s just plain wrong.

States have various laws concerning funeral processions. Some states say it’s okay for the drivers to follow the hearse through a red light, others forbid it. Some states have no formal laws about it at all. But almost all have something on the books forbidding anyone to cut into a funeral procession except for emergency vehicles like an ambulance.

This van, which was traveling in a funeral procession in Milwaukee, Wisc., was overturned when a pickup truck slammed into it. Photo courtesy of Tom Held/Journal-Sentinel.

This van, which was traveling in a funeral procession in Milwaukee, Wisc., was overturned when a pickup truck slammed into it. Photo courtesy of Tom Held/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

In the past, most police departments provided their escort services to funeral homes free of charge. Some small towns still do. But with many police departments underfunded and understaffed, this is becoming a thing of the past.

Cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Minneapolis no longer provide funeral escorts unless it is for a fellow fallen officer, fireman or military personnel killed in action. So now funeral homes have to hire off-duty cops or privately owned security firms to do it. This cost is ultimately passed on to the family.

Liability concerns are another reason police departments aren’t providing their escort services. Courts in Tennessee and Florida have found that police and funeral homes that provide escorts for funeral processions can be held liable for crashes that occur during the processions.

In Memphis, Marcus Eddins owns Community Motorized Escort Service. In a 2011 news article, he said drivers are often distracted and don’t notice the man on the motorcycle in the middle of an intersection waving a procession of cars through. “I’ve seen them (drivers) texting, putting on makeup, eating cereal, reading a book — you name it,” Eddins said.

In addition, police officers acting as funeral escorts have been injured in Memphis by drivers attempting to cut through processions. In 2011, five police officers were killed while acting as funeral escorts.

A 2012 article in The Washington Post quoted funeral director Archer Harmon when he said, “We have cellphones in one hand, Starbucks in the other and what is in front of you doesn’t matter at that point. They just don’t care, in this society we live in now.”

It frustrates me that people cannot pause for a few minutes to recognize and honor the life of a fellow human being. Maybe deep down, some people are so scared of Death coming to stop for them that it’s easier to close their eyes and ignore it.

In the same 2012 article, funeral director P.A. Wilson said he thought respect for the dead hadn’t totally evaporated yet. “If you go to the South, they show respect. In the eastern part of North Carolina, the people pull to the side of the road on both sides, regardless of what race is being buried, black or white. They still show some respect.”

Maybe respect isn’t totally dead after all.

An elderly gentleman stops to show his respect during the funeral procession of a Beaumont, Texas police officer killed in the line of duty. Photo courtesy of Guiseppe Barranco/The Enterprise.

An elderly gentleman stops to show his respect during the funeral procession of a Beaumont, Texas police officer killed in the line of duty. Photo courtesy of Guiseppe Barranco/The Enterprise.

Causes of Death

In 2013, the winner of the infamous Darwin Award was Lee Halpin, a British journalist who pretended to be homeless for a few days in an effort to produce a documentary about the problem. He was found dead on April 3 in a boarded up youth hostel in his hometown of Newscastle. Initially, people thought it was due to hypothermia since the recent weather had been so bitterly cold.

British journalist Lee Halpin died while trying to get an understanding of what it was truly like to live homeless on the streets. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

British journalist Lee Halpin died while trying to get an understanding of what it was truly like to live homeless on the streets. Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

Months later, however, a report came out stating this was not the case. Halpin died of something I had never heard of before: Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. Apparently, this is the term British pathologists use when they’ve ruled out everything else (including hypothermia).

In other words, they don’t what the cause of death was.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list heart disease as the top cause of death in America, with cancer coming in second. Not surprising. But in my experience as a cemetery hopper, I’ve found that there are many ways to die. Some of them are surprising. Like walking into what you think is an elevator car and falling to your death, as Riley Owen Medlock found out. I wrote about him last year. I’ve seen many causes of death, from “apoplexy” to cholera to diabetes miletus.

I recently visited Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C. While there, I photographed several rows of graves to post later on Find a Grave. Most of the graves had been documented with memorial pages already, but many of them had not been photographed.

When I do this, I look to see if the deceased is related to anyone else buried at that cemetery so I can “link” the two memorials. The research I do on Ancestry.com often results in some interesting surprises. South Carolina has many of their death records on Ancestry so it’s often possible to see a person’s cause of death.

Matilda Barber's grave is not unusual. It simply lists her and that of her two husbands. But one died in a surprising way.

Matilda Barber’s grave is not unusual. It simply lists her and that of her two husbands. But one died in a surprising way.

For example, there’s the grave of Matilda Barber Hutson Easterling. It’s a small stone inscribed with her maiden name, her birth/death dates, and the names of her two husbands. Neither is buried beside her but her first husband, Joseph Hutson, is buried somewhere at Magnolia. He died in 1908.

In looking up Joseph’s records, I learned he was an engineer who died at the age of 33. Cause of death?

Suicide by ingestion of rat poison.

I don't often see "suicide rat poison" on a death record.

I don’t often see “suicide rat poison” on a death record.

Now I don’t know about you, but that’s not something you see on a death record every day. Even in my work. Back then, people used potent toxic chemicals for many reasons. I can’t say for sure what type of poison Hutson took but it could have been anything from arsenic to cyanide to yellow phosphorous. Not a painless way to die at all. I don’t know what drove him to take such a drastic step but he did.

Matilda, who was in her mid-30s at the time, was a widow for several years after Joseph’s death. She married Harold Easterling sometime in her 60s and died when she was almost 80. Some have suggested to me that Matilda might have had something to do with her first husband’s demise. But nothing indicates she was ever investigated or charged with any crime. They didn’t have the forensic tools we have today to explore the possibilities.

When I visited Decatur Cemetery earlier this year, I took a picture of the grave of a young father named Grier Almand. He worked for the railroad, was married and had two young children. I knew he had died young but I didn’t know why until I did some research.

On Oct. 29, 1901, Grier had just coupled two railroad cars and walked between two other cars when he was struck by a switch engine. The engineer did not see him. Unfortunately, Grier’s legs were almost entirely severed from his body. They took him to Grady Hospital but after an operation, he died.

Grier Almand's gravestone indicates nothing about the horrible cause of his death.

Grier Almand’s gravestone indicates nothing about the horrible cause of his death.

I was able to determine that Grier’s widow, Clifford, filed suit against the railroad for damages. I don’t know if she won the suit or not. She is buried with Grier, a simple marker inscribed “Wife” beside his much more ornate stone. I have a guess that the railroad may have paid for Grier’s marker as it most likely cost far more than a railroad worker’s salary could cover.

Deaths caused by accidents in railroad yards did occur with some frequency years ago. Another man I researched (buried in Magnolia Cemetery) died as the result of his work in a railroad yard. More recently, I once worked for a man whose wife died while attempting to step onto a passenger train in Germany. This probably happened in the mid-90s.

More often than not, people die from very ordinary causes. But every now and then, one will really stand out. And sometimes, we never do find out why, as in Lee Halpin’s case.

Perhaps some mysteries are meant to remain unsolved.

A Girl and Her Dog: Modern Remembrance at Magnolia Cemetery

Discovering old, unique gravestones always excites me. Even the bizarre ones with skeletons reclining against hourglasses, like the one below.

I featured this photo of a Charleston grave marker in a past blog post.

I featured this photo of a Charleston grave marker in a past blog post.

I admit, I am not a very enthusiastic fan of most modern markers, be they flat bronze plates that enable cemetery grounds crews to mow the grass more easily, or row after row of the same mid-century marble gravestones.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that most people cannot afford the elaborate statuary that I come across in older cemeteries. Some of it is so grand and ornate, it boggles the mind that someone had the money to pay for it. The type of craftsmen who spent months sculpting such works of art no longer exist. The creativity that so detailed those old stones seems to have faded into the sunset.

My viewpoint was challenged when I recently returned to Charleston and visited Magnolia Cemetery again. I came across a modern gravestone that even a traditionalist like me could stop and appreciate. From the moment I saw it, I realized that the person it was made for was very special. My apologies for the darkness of some of the photos.

The memorial stone for Mackenzie Addison Gardner is stunning in its heartfelt simplicity. A girl with her beloved dog.

The memorial stone for Mackenzie Addison Gardner tugs at the heartstrings.

A little girl and her beloved canine companion.

A little girl and her beloved canine companion.

Mackenzie Addison Gardner was only 11 when she died in 2007. A short life, to be sure. But the words engraved in the stone describe a child who lit up the world around her.

"Love Beyond Words"

“Love Beyond Words”

I don’t know much about Mackenzie. The obituary on her Find a Grave memorial page says the following:

…[she] was a member of the Jazz Dance Group of the Mount Pleasant School of Performing Arts and the Pinckney Players and enjoyed horseback riding, playing violin, going to the beach and lake, and making her parents proud. Mackenzie will be remembered by her close friends and family for being the bravest girl they will ever know.

The obituary also requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I can only surmise that Mackenzie had CF and that her cause of death may have been tied to it.

I also don’t know anything about the protective, loving canine she is embracing on the monument. But it appears they were dear friends and companions. The emotion this carving evokes in those who see it is palpable.

I was actually driving away from this part of the cemetery when I saw it and had to stop, get out and look at it. The shaded vista it’s located in is quiet and perfect for meditating. Just what she would have wanted, I think.

Mackenzie’s memorial changed my mind about modern gravestones. I’m happy to say I now look at them with a less jaded eye and am more open to the possibilities. I will always love the old, unique stones. But there’s room for the appreciation of new ones, too.

Rest in peace, Mackenzie.

image

A Climb Up The Wedding Cake: Visiting Myrtle Hill Cemetery

I enjoy discovering small, tucked away cemeteries. But I’ve got to admit, sometimes I love “hopping large”!

Myrtle Hill Cemetery is the second oldest cemetery in Rome, Ga. The cemetery covers 32 acres and about 20,000 people are buried there.

Myrtle Hill Cemetery is the second oldest cemetery in Rome, Ga. The cemetery covers 32 acres and about 20,000 people are buried there.

Myrtle Hill Cemetery came to my attention last year when I wrote a post on famous ladies who are buried in Georgia. So when my husband announced he and our son were going on a “guys only” road trip in May, I made a mental note to visit Myrtle Hill while they were away. My fellow Church Chick, Sarah, agreed to ride shotgun.

I hadn’t been to Rome since the 80s when I visited my high school friends Melissa and Valerie, who were attending Berry College at the time. I’ve seen Melissa several times since then but haven’t had much contact with Valerie. As it turns out, she recently returned to Rome to become pastor of a Methodist Church. Via Facebook, we arranged to meet for lunch during my visit.

At first, Sarah and I weren’t sure things would go well because it started to rain about 10 miles outside of Rome. But little will deter a cemetery hopper when she’s got her mind set on something. We parked in the lot beside the bridge that leads into downtown Rome and with umbrellas in hand, started out.

Umbrellas were the order of the day during the first half of our hop. Myrtle Hill is still an active cemetery and recently added a new mausoleum, which Sarah gave her thumbs up to.

Umbrellas were a necessity during the first half of our hop. Myrtle Hill is still an active cemetery and recently added a new mausoleum, which Sarah gave her thumbs up to.

Myrtle Hill was a battle site long before it became a cemetery. In 1793, along with about 800 troops, General John Sevier (in an unauthorized plan) pursued a band of about 1,000 Cherokee Indians to nearby Cartersville seeking to avenge the scalping of 13 settlers near Knoxville, Tenn. (among other reasons). The result was the Battle of Hightower. Sevier later became governor of Tennessee and the town of Sevierville (outside Pigeon Forge) was named after him. A monument in his honor is on the edge of the cemetery.

The Cherokee created a defensive position on Myrtle Hill and used a guard to try to prevent Sevier from fording the Etowah River below. Ultimately, the Cherokees failed and after their leader, Kingfisher, was killed, they fled and Sevier burned down their village.

In 1850, nearby Oak Hill Cemetery had filled up and the need grew for a new cemetery in Rome. The hill, known for its Vinca minor (trailing myrtle), was an early candidate. The land was purchased from Shorter College (formerly Rome Female College) namesake Alfred Shorter. In 1857, Myrtle Hill Cemetery opened.

This is the monument for Col. Alfred Shorter and his wife, Mary. Shorter was the previous co-owner of Myrtle hill. He was also the namesake of what is now Shorter College.

This is the monument for Col. Alfred Shorter and his wife, Martha. Shorter was the previous co-owner of the land Myrtle Hill is on. He was also the namesake of what is now Shorter College.

The cemetery was soon put to use during the Civil War when an earthwork fortification named Fort Stovall was built atop it. Today, the Confederate dead monument stands atop Myrtle Hill where the fighting most likely took place, while the actual Confederate dead are buried down by the cemetery gates.

Myrtle Hill's Confederate monument sits atop the cemetery where Fort probably once stood during the Civil War.

Myrtle Hill’s Confederate monument sits atop the cemetery where Fort Stovall probably once stood during the Civil War. I took this picture after lunch when the rain stopped.

A monument honoring controversial Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who saved Rome from Union forces in 1863, was originally situated at a downtown intersection. I’ve heard that it distracted drivers so much that it had to be moved to the cemetery, where it now stands.

I've read that this monument of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1903) proved to be a distraction to drivers when it was in downtown Rome so they moved it to Myrtle Hill.

I’ve read that this monument of Confederate Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest (erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908) proved to be a distraction to drivers when it was in downtown Rome so they moved it to Myrtle Hill.

The structure of Myrtle Hill can be compared to a wedding cake with graduated layers leading to the stop. Lines of grave markers are situated along these “layers”, watched over by a canopy of trees and other greenery. This photo by Drew Tyndell does it more justice than my iPhone can.

Myrtle Hill Cemetery is situated across the bridge over the Etowah River and is structured almost like a wedding cake with "layers" you can walk up. Photo courtesy of Drew Tyndell.

Myrtle Hill Cemetery is situated across the bridge over the Etowah River and is structured almost like a wedding cake with “layers” you can walk up. Photo courtesy of Drew Tyndell.

One of the graves I most wanted to see was that of First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson. She was the first wife of President Woodrow Wilson and the only First Lady buried in Georgia. Her monument was even lovelier in person than photos indicate, with beautiful roses placed at the base. Mrs. Wilson was an artist herself and I think she would have appreciated the work that went into the stone.

First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson is buried beside her father, the Rev. Samuel Axson. It was in his church that the Wilsons first met.

First Lady Ellen Axson Wilson is buried beside her father, the Rev. Samuel Axson. It was in his church that the Wilsons first met.

Another famous resident of Myrtle Hill is Dr. Thomas Battey, the first physician to successfully perform an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) on Julia Omberg. The procedure was supposedly performed on the patient’s kitchen table and afterward, Dr. Battey remained at Omberg’s side for the next several days until her recovery was assured. My research indicates a lynch mob waited outside in case this did not happen. Happily, Mrs. Omberg lived well into her 80s, thanks to Dr. Battey. His tomb is near the top of the hill.

I'm not sure what the flowers and butterfly symbolize on Dr. Robert Battey's tomb. But it's probably the largest one in the Cemetery, including its tall spire you can see from afar.

After his successful surgery, Dr. Battey became professor of obstetrics at the Atlanta Medical College where he stayed until 1875. He practiced medicine until his death on November 8, 1895.

WHAT???

WHAT???

For some reason, there was an empty tampon box at the foot of Dr. Battey’s tomb. Considering that he performed the first operation removing a woman’s ovaries, we couldn’t help laughing.

Here you can see the top of Dr. Battey's tomb while getting a beautiful view of downtown Rome.

Here you can see the top of Dr. Battey’s tomb while getting a beautiful view of downtown Rome.

The terraced sides of Myrtle Hill fascinate me. After lunch with Val, when the rain stopped and the sun came out, I explored them. Some of the stones are in better shape than others, but all in all, it’s a lovely forest-like setting.

These terraced grave sites make for a peaceful setting but require some definite physical fitness if you are climbing up the many steps on the hillside.

These terraced grave sites make for a peaceful setting but require some definite physical fitness if you are climbing up the many steps on the hillside. The graves of Charles and Bittie Warner are the two block-type stones in the front.

One of the more intriguing people whose grave I photographed was Charles Jacques Warner, a native of England who came to America 1848. He married Elizabeth “Bittie” Brown in Virginia, where they had two children. They purchased a photography studio in Rome and with Bittie’s help, it became a success. Charles was also a talented musician who gave lessons.

According to a wonderful blog post by Lee Eltzroth, Charles left town around 1880 with one of his beautiful female pupils (and dragged his daughter Lula along) to pursue his dreams in New York City.

Bittie, however, did not sit at home and weep. She tracked Charles down. While he and his young lover had taken jobs in a minstrel show, young Lula had been forced to perform in a stage play, which horrified Bittie. Eventually, Bittie got full custody of Lula and returned with her to Rome. Oddly enough, Charles is listed in the 1900 U.S. Census as again living with his family in Rome, so Bittie must have taken him back. Despite Charles’ “midlife crisis”, Lee reports that when he died on Nov. 29, 1906, the newspapers in Rome called him “an old and highly respected citizen of this city.”

Myrtle Hill Cemetery is also home to some of the most interesting angel monuments I’ve ever seen, with quite a variety of expressions. I’ll share a few and you can judge.

Holding what looks to be an open Bible, this angel has an almost defiant look on her face as she gazes Heavenward.

Holding what looks to be an open Bible, this angel has an almost defiant look on her face as she gazes Heavenward.

By contrast, this angel seems more forlorn and pensive than the first one. Still, the detail of the lace edge of her gown is eye-catching.

By contrast, this angel seems more forlorn and pensive than the first one. Still, the detail of the lace edge of her gown is eye-catching.

This last angel is lost in thought, her eyes trained on the Bible below. Her wings caught my attention more than her face.

This last angel is lost in thought, her eyes trained on the Bible below. Her wings caught my attention more than her face.

There’s a lot more to Myrtle Hill Cemetery but these are the highlights that I enjoyed the most. High on that list is reuniting with Valerie, who is just as sweet and funny as I remember her being.

It was the icing on the “cake” of my visit to Rome. :-)

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Lenin and “Extreme Embalming”

The death of New Orleans socialite Mickey Easterling made headlines in April. At her wake, she was posed amid a garden tableau resembling her own backyard, sitting with a glass of champagne in her hand, a pink boa swathing her neck.

Mickey Easterling loved being the center of attention when she was alive and wanted it that way when she died.

Mickey Easterling loved being the center of attention when she was alive and wanted it that way after she died.

Then there’s David Morales Colón. Funeral home staff placed him on his favorite motorcycle in a unique “viewing ceremony” that his family requested after he was shot in San Juan, Puerto Rico in May 2012.

David Morales Colón was only 22 when he died. The funeral directors at Marin Funeral Home in San Juan's Hato Rey neighborhood are known for their expertise in "extreme embalming" techniques.

David Morales Colón was only 22 when he died. The funeral directors at Marin Funeral Home in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood are known for their expertise in “extreme embalming” techniques.

These example of “extreme embalming” can take hours of painstaking work. According to Caleb Wilde, a funeral director who writes one of my favorite blogs, “Most funeral homes, the most extreme thing they might do is dressing the deceased in shorts. So it’s a very rare thing.”

When it comes to extreme embalming, the pioneer personality of this trend has to be Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. You can still visit his tomb today and see his body, which many do.

As leader of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic from 1917, Lenin also served concurrently as Premier of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death. Under his leadership, the Russian Empire was toppled and became the Soviet Union, a one-party socialist state. Industry and businesses were nationalized.

It's safe to say that Vladimir Lenin had no idea that after his death, his tomb would become a tourist attraction for decades to come.

It’s safe to say that Vladimir Lenin had no idea that after his death, his tomb would become a tourist attraction for decades to come. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

According to a Jewish World Review article, when Lenin died of a stroke and heart attack in 1924, his widow said he wanted to be buried next to his mother in a simple cemetery plot. However, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky (head of the secret police) pushed for the preservation of Lenin’s remains. With the notion they would freeze their revered leader, they ordered a special freezer to be built in Germany to do the job.

Unfortunately, building the freezer took too long and Lenin’s body began to deteriorate. By using a then untested chemical process, Lenin was embalmed and his skin gently treated to preserve a life-like appearance. A team led by Vladimir Vorobiov, an anatomy professor from Ukraine, did the work. Had they failed, it probably would have resulted in their death.

Today, Lenin is entombed in a massive granite and marble mausoleum in Red Square. Sealed in a glass sarcophagus, Lenin’s body is maintained at 61 degrees, with the humidity between 80 and 90 percent.

Situated on the edge of Red Square in Moscow, Lenin's Tomb is a popular stop for tourists.

Situated in Red Square in Moscow, Lenin’s Tomb is a popular stop for tourists. In 2003, about 1.5 million tourists visited the mausoleum. Photo couresty of RIA Novosti Ustinov.

Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky has been helping keep Lenin in the pink since the 70s. “He looks quite fine, as good as he did 30 years ago,” he said in 2004. “He looked terrible when he died, but what you see now is Lenin’s face, not someone else’s.”

Filtered lighting gives Lenin’s face a warm glow. Botox, collagen and modern cosmetics aren’t used, Denisov-Nikolsky said. A mild bleach is used to fight off occasional fungus stains or mold spots on Lenin’s face.

Specially filtered lighting gives Lenin's face a warm glow. Botox, collagen and modern cosmetics aren't used. A mild bleach is used to combat occasional fungus stains or mold spots on Lenin's face.

Special lighting gives Lenin’s face a glow. Modern chemicals like Botox aren’t used. A mild bleach is used to combat occasional fungus stains or mold spots on Lenin’s face.

According to Denisov-Nikolsky, Lenin’s skin is examined closely each week, using special Russian-made instruments that measure moisture, color and contour. He said dehydration and time are the main enemies.

Lenin gets an extreme makeover every 18 months. The mausoleum is closed for two months and the body is immersed in a bath of glycerol and potassium acetate for 30 days. The skin slowly absorbs the solution, regaining its moisture and elasticity.

Ilya Zbarsky worked on the body from 1934 to 1952. His father, Boris, participated in the original embalming in 1924. According to Zbarsky, Lenin’s blood, bodily fluids and internal organs were removed as part of the initial embalming. His eyebrows, moustache and goatee are his original hair.

Lenin lies in state in an elaborate sarcophagus. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

Lenin lies in state in an elaborate sarcophagus. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

The whereabouts of Lenin’s heart are unknown. But his brain was supposedly examined by a renowned German scientist to find potential clues to his alleged genius. It’s kept at a Moscow institute. But according to Zbarsky, it’s not easy to see it. “It’s mostly dissected.”

During World War II, the Soviets feared a direct hit by the Nazis. So they secretly shipped Lenin, whom they code-named “Object No. 1″, to a warehouse in central Russia. He was returned to the mausoleum in March 1945.

When Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin died in 1953, he was embalmed by the Zbarskys’ former assistants at the mausoleum. Stalin shared it with Lenin for eight years. Then he was officially discredited, removed and buried under the Kremlin wall. According to Ilya Zbarsky, Muscovites made up a new saying: “Don’t sleep in a mausoleum that doesn’t belong to you.”

For a few years, Lenin and Stalin shared the same mausoleum before public opinion turned.

For a few years, Lenin and Stalin shared the same mausoleum before public opinion turned.

With the Soviet Union breakup in 1991, the Russian government stopped financing the preservation of Lenin’s body, Denisov-Nikolsky said. Private donations pay for his 15-person staff at a research lab called Medical Biological Technologies.

The mausoleum staff also visits Vietnam to check on the body of Ho Chi Minh, on display in Hanoi. Denisov-Nikolsky was on the Soviet team that secretly embalmed “Uncle Ho” in a North Vietnamese jungle cave in 1970.

The staff that maintain's Lenin's body also supervises the condition of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in his Hanoi tomb.

The staff that maintains Lenin’s body also supervises the condition of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in his Hanoi tomb.

According to a recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow, nearly 60 percent of Russians younger than 50 want Lenin to be removed and buried. “Only people over 50 more frequently reply that they’re against Lenin’s burial,” said Foundation President Alexander Olson. This age group views “suggestions that the body be removed as blasphemous.”

Some argue that an emerging democracy, even if it’s a democracy in name only, should stop maintaining monuments to a dictator responsible for decades of suffering and millions of deaths.

“The body should be removed, yes, and it should cease to be an object of worship,” Zbarsky said. “It should be buried or kept in a laboratory somewhere.”

I would have to agree.

Savannah’s Secrets: Visiting Colonial Cemetery

You may remember that back in February, I took a short but memorable trip to Savannah. My journey included a stop at one of the South’s oldest burial grounds — Colonial Cemetery. It’s a wonderful place to amble through, chock full of history. But it also has a few secrets it seems reluctant to part with.

With its entrance built by the Savannah chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Cemetery is the oldest one in existence in the city.

With its current entrance built in 1931 by the Savannah chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Cemetery is the oldest one still in existence in the city.

Sitting in the center of the Historic District, Colonial is thought to be the oldest cemetery still in existence in the city (which was established as a British colony by General James Oglethorpe in 1733). When you walk through the gates, it doesn’t seem like there are that many grave stones present. But while there are about 600 or so visible markers in Colonial, it is home to an estimated 10,000 graves. Historians aren’t even sure if the markers that remain are placed where they were originally due to so many changes to the place over the years.

Colonial Cemetery contains the graves of many famous Savannah residents, from a signer of the Declaration of Independence to one of the world's best miniature painters.

Colonial Cemetery contains the graves of many famous Savannah residents, from a signer of the Declaration of Independence to one of the world’s best miniature painters.

Colonial opened for burials in 1750. Over the years, it expanded from a few acres to its current six. At one point, it was larger than its current borders would indicate. So when construction occurs in the area, bones from those unmarked graves are often found. Eventually, Colonial closed to burials in 1853 for lack of space.

This undated photo of Colonial Cemetery shows how it probably looked when the City managed the property. They went out of their way to obscure the brick tombs with plant life.

This undated photo of Colonial Cemetery shows how it probably looked when the Park and Tree Commission managed the property in the late 1800s. They went out of their way to obscure the brick tombs with foliage. Why?

What you’ll immediately notice as you stroll down the paths is that there are a number of brick tombs. I had only seen a few of these before and they were at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. During Savannah’s early years, the city did not have access to the fine marble crypts that later Savannah cemeteries like Laurel Grove Cemetery have. Brick was what they had to build with, so I am guessing that’s why they favored it.

One of the first things you notice at Colonial are the brick tombs.

One of the first things you notice at Colonial are the brick tombs.

In 1999, the Chicora Foundation (a non-profit heritage preservation organization) was hired to do an in-depth study of Colonial Cemetery. Of special interest were these brick tombs and their construction. You can read the report here.

What I learned from Chicora’s report is that these tombs were made primarily with two kinds of bricks. “Savannah Grays” were actually more red and brown than gray, locally made, large and not well-fired. By contrast, “Philadelphia” bricks were slightly smaller and very hard by comparison. These were probably imported from the North and were also being used in many of the buildings taking shape in the city at that time.

While the styles of these brick tombs varied a bit, they were mostly built from the same materials.

While the styles of these brick tombs vary a bit, they were mostly built from the same materials.

One of Colonial’s more famous former residents was General Nathanael Greene, a decorated Revolutionary War hero and friend of President George Washington (who visited Savannah in 1791). A native of Rhode Island, Greene is best known for his successful command in the Southern Campaign in which he forced British General Charles Cornwalis to give up the Carolinas.

Greene was buried in Colonial after his death at his Georgia estate, Mulberry Grove, in 1786. However, in 1901, there was a push to have Greene’s remains buried in Johnson Square under a monument in his honor. The problem was, nobody was quite sure which tomb he was buried in!

The exact location of Nathanael Greene's remains were a mystery until 1901.

The exact location of Nathanael Greene’s remains were a mystery until 1901.

ColonialGrahamVault1

The bricks at the foot of both tombs indicate the place where entry was made.

Col. Asa Bird Gardiner, president of the Rhode Island State Society of the Cincinnati (an organization for descendants of military officers of the Revolutionary War), was assigned the task of finding Greene’s remains. From notes left by Greene’s grandson, all they knew was that the man was taller than average and had a wide, prominent forehead. Not much to go on compared to the forensic technology we have access to today. But Gardiner (with help) eventually had success:

He heard something clatter inside the sieve and plucked from it three metal buttons with a patina of green. He wiped one button clean and saw the faint outline of an eagle. Gardiner recognized these as buttons worn by officers of the Revolution. Keenan then found a French silk glove filled with finger bones. French silk had been a luxury during the Revolution. Keenan found a second glove full of bones. He then found a third glove stiff with finger bones. Obviously more than one person had been entombed on this side of the vault. (From the article “Recovering the Remains of General Nathanael Greene” by Gerald M. Carbone.)

The second person turned out to be Greene’s oldest son, who drowned at the age of 18. The elder Greene’s identity was also confirmed by the discovery of an engraved nameplate on the coffin. Both Greene and his son’s remains were removed and now rest in Johnson Square underneath a large monument.

Johnson Square is the final resting place of Nathanael Greene and his son. Photo courtesy of www.visithistoricsavannah.com.

Johnson Square is the final resting place of Nathanael Greene and his son. Photo courtesy of visithistoricsavannah.com.

As a result of its hot, humid climate and (in its early days) unsanitary conditions, Savannah had the dubious honor of enduring several Yellow Fever epidemics over the years. Thousands of people who died during those epidemics are buried in Colonial Cemetery. Many of their graves are unmarked.

In colonial days, trash and human waste were often dumped into the street. It's little surprise disease frequently swept the city.

In colonial days, trash and human waste were often dumped into the street. It’s little surprise disease frequently swept the city.

One of Colonial’s most fascinating and enduring features is its long wall of old broken headstones salvaged from the past. They are a result of one of Colonial’s periods of renovation in 1895 when the Park and Tree Commission took over. Their efforts to shape the cemetery into something akin to a public park included planting masses of foliage over many of the tombs and gravestones. Why? I have no idea.

Hundreds of these fragments of grave markers line one entire wall of the cemetery. Some of them have altered dates on them, supposedly done by Union soldiers who reportedly camped in Colonial during the Civil War.

Hundreds of these fragments of grave markers line one entire wall of the cemetery. Some of them have altered dates on them, supposedly done by Union soldiers who reportedly camped in Colonial during the Civil War.

Some of the markers have altered dates on them, but I did not see many. The story goes that Union Soldiers who camped in Colonial Cemetery during the Civil War did it in an attempt to get back at the Confederate Forces. Many of them reminded me of the stones I saw in Charleston, especially the ones with the weeping willow motif. So many of those buried here died young, some even shortly after they were born.

The weeping willow motif is a common grief symbol on grave markers in the South.

The weeping willow motif is a common grief symbol on grave markers in the South.

Finally, one last thing I should mention is that several prominent Savannah gentlemen are buried here as a result of the “dueling era” that took place from the 1730s to the 1870s. Some of them were fought for the flimsiest of reasons. Many even say some of these duels took place in Colonial Cemetery itself, but that is a bit of a mystery.

In the case of Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration of Independence and is the man for whom Georgia’s Gwinnett County is named, he died as the result of his wounds from a duel he fought with his political rival, Col. Lachlan McIntosh. Why a duel? Gwinnett tried to lead a campaign against British-controlled East Florida in order to secure Georgia’s border, but McIntosh was against it. Gwinnett challenged his enemy to a duel and while both were wounded, Gwinnett died.

Button Gwinnett's signature is considered incredibly rare. In 1979, a letter signed by Gwinnett brought $100,000 at a New York auction.

Button Gwinnett’s signature is considered incredibly rare and valuable by collectors. In 1979, a letter signed by Gwinnett brought $100,000 at a New York auction. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Since nobody is quite sure where Gwinnett is buried, this monument honors his contributions to Georgia history.

Since nobody is quite sure where Gwinnett is buried, this monument honors his contributions to Georgia history. That’s my niece, Hannah, standing beneath it.

There are a number of ghost stories surrounding Colonial but they really don’t interest me much. The history of the place is fascinating enough. When I was there, I felt rather solemn. The awareness that so many people were buried there during Savannah’s tumultuous early years was great.

And many took this city’s secrets with them to the grave.

A Place to Call Home: Visiting Hubbard Family Cemetery

As I’ve said before, one of the joys of doing this work is reuniting with old friends. One of them is Todd Guenzi, whose photographic talents you’ve seen before in this blog. While we’ve kept in touch via Facebook, I hadn’t seen him in probably over 12 years. He and I were both in the singles’ group at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Buckhead.

So last year when Todd mentioned that a friend of his had a family cemetery in Talladega, Ala., I was immediately curious. I don’t take many road trips because being a mom means staying close to home for the little guy. So it took a lot of juggling schedules over the months to finally set a date in April. Fortunately, our calendars, my son’s spring break and the weather aligned in perfect order.

Before this, I’d only driven past Talladega (known for its famous racetrack) on my way to Birmingham. But Nancy’s family has lived in the area for decades and while some of them are now scattered throughout the Southeast, it’s the place they call home. Visiting Talladega’s town square is like taking a step back in time. The Chamber of Commerce, where we stopped briefly, is housed in an old train station. Some of the original tile is still there, too.

Nancy wanted to stop at the Talladega Chamber of Commerce to find a book. It's housed in an old train station.

Nancy wanted to stop at the Talladega Chamber of Commerce, which is housed in a beautifully maintained old train station.

Some years ago, Nancy and her siblings concluded that they did not want to see their beloved family cemetery slowly fade away. They also wanted to honor the memory of their parents, James Anthony and Kate Thomas Hubbard, in a special way. Nancy’s brother, Langdon, is a very successful businessman. So with him at the helm, the Hubbards hired an architect to draw up plans to restore and revive it.

The Hubbard Family Cemetery is located on the edge of Langdon’s property, which is quite vast. The view from the back of the cemetery is amazing.

Nancy's brother owns a lot of land in Talladega. The family cemetery is on the edge of it, near his home.

Nancy’s brother owns a lot of land in Talladega. The family cemetery is on the edge of it, close to his home.

However, it’s the front of the cemetery that catches your eye first. The bell tower is stunning.

The bell tower in front of the cemetery is easily seen from the road.

The bell tower in front of the cemetery is easily seen from the road. There’s also room to park your car.

The bell is usually only rung when someone is being buried. But Nancy gave me permission to ring it, which I did.

The bell is usually rung only when someone is being buried. But Nancy gave me permission to ring it, which I did. I have to admit, the effort literally knocked me off my feet!

Although Nancy grew up in Talladega, she lived in Michigan for many years. She’s outlived her two husbands. Like me, she had only one son and it was much later in life than most mothers. I think for that reason, among many, I feel a kinship to her. She also treasures her family history, and works with her brothers and sisters to preserve it.

Nancy treasures her family's cemetery and is very pleased with the result of the work done to preserve it.

Nancy treasures her family’s cemetery and is very pleased with the result of the work done to preserve it.

When Langdon went about making changes to the cemetery, he made arrangements for a few family members buried at another cemetery down the road to be moved to this one. He also had the property surveyed to determine where some of the unmarked graves were. As it turned out, there were more than they first imagined. The ones that they found are marked like this.

As is the case in many old family cemeteries, there are people buried within whose identities are lost to time.

As is the case in many old family cemeteries, there are people buried within whose identities are lost to time.

One of the first graves I saw was that of Netta Mae Hubbard. She died at the age of 21, a young wife to W.T. Roberts and a devoted mother.

The oak leaf motif on top of Netta Mae Hubbard's grave is lovely. Oak leaves symbolize strength, endurance, eternity, honor, liberty, hospitality, faith and virtue.

The oak leaf motif on top of Netta Mae Hubbard’s grave is lovely. Oak leaves symbolize strength, endurance, eternity, hospitality, faith and virtue.

On the day we visited, a work crew was laying down a flagstone walkway to encircle the graves. Nancy told us she thought Langdon was planning on surprising the family with it when they came over for Easter. It was certainly a beautiful day to be outside under the bright blue sky.

Todd (on the left) had been to Hubbard Family Cemetery once before but rain kept them from staying very long on that visit.

Todd (on the left) had visited the cemetery once before with Nancy, but rain kept them from staying very long.

The graves in the Hubbard Family Cemetery range from the 1700s to only a few years ago. You can see Langdon's home in the background.

The graves in the Hubbard Family Cemetery range from the 1800s to only a few years ago. You can see Langdon’s home in the background.

One of the oldest graves in the cemetery belongs to John Hubbard, born in 1797. According to Ancestry.com, he was born in Elbert County, Ga., but moved to Alabama later.

John Hubbard's grave is one of the oldest in the cemetery and has been repaired several times over the years.

John Hubbard’s grave is one of the oldest in the cemetery and has been repaired several times over the years.

After exploring the cemetery, we went over to the Hubbard’s “Home Place” that is nearby. On holidays like Christmas and Easter, the Hubbard siblings and their families gather to celebrate. A tiny house, it still stirs a lot of memories for Nancy. She remembers hard work but happy times with her family, growing up on the farm. Looking over the land, she can tell you where every barn and outbuilding used to be.

On the drive back to Newnan, where Nancy now lives, I thought about what a wonderful history her family has and how blessed she is that they’ve preserved it so well. It will live on after they’ve gone and future generations will not only keep the cemetery in the beautiful condition it is in now, but expand it for burials to come.

I also thought about how good friends like Todd can be akin to family. That keeping those ties intact is just as important. I hope as my journey continues, I can revive old friendships and make new ones, like the one I’ve formed with Nancy.

Because when we’re surrounded by family and friends, we truly do find a place to call home.

Toddandme

Standing Tall: The Life of Harvey Henry Tisinger

Many years ago, a song called “Short People” came out. A lot of people thought it was hilarious.

I wasn’t a fan.

I get asked how tall I am a lot. Barely five feet tall. When I was younger, I got a lot of “Wow, you’re really short!”. Wow, thanks for letting me know! I had no idea.

While being short can be a pain for a woman, it’s much harder for a guy. My father was probably no taller than five feet five, if that. I know when he was growing up, he hated it. But when he joined the Air Force, he gained confidence and didn’t let his height bother him. If he came up to you to shake your hand, you forgot he was a short man.

If I’d been able to meet Harvey Henry Tisinger, I know I would have thought the same thing.

I “found” Harvey this week at East View Cemetery in Atlanta. It’s one of my favorite places to visit because the cemetery is well maintained by a group of volunteers. The place is quite peaceful despite the fact it’s located in East Atlanta. Someone raises chickens nearby because nearly every time I visit, I hear one making a fuss.

East View Cemetery is one of my favorite haunts, including the sounds of the chickens.

East View Cemetery is one of my favorite haunts, including the sounds of the chickens.

I snapped a photo of Harvey’s grave as an afterthought before I left. His marker lists a Lucy Tisinger as well but there’s no death date for her. So as is my habit, I started digging. Oddly enough, there was nothing on Lucy on Ancestry.com. Nothing. But Harvey? Well, that was a different story.

Harvey Henry Tisinger was born in Carroll County, Ga. in the Bowdon area in 1898. He was the son of George Washington Tisinger and Ida Bibb McDaniel Tisinger. George operated Victory Farm in Bowdon, growing and selling cotton. Harvey was one of nine children. But from the start, Harvey was different.

Built in 1913, the Tisinger House is now a venue for weddings.

Built in 1913, the Tisinger House is now a venue for weddings.

Due to an unknown illness in infancy, Harvey only grew to be four feet three inches tall.

Even as a child, Harvey did not let his lack of height get in his way. At 12, he sawed the handle off a hoe so he could chop cotton. At 14, some said he could pick 200 pounds of cotton a day.

Harvey went to the University of Georgia to get a degree in commerce, hoping to help out in managing the family farm. He did not sit idle. He was inducted into the Honorary Business Fraternity (later called Gamma Sigma), and was elected president of the Economic Society, secretary/treasurer of the Student Council, and secretary of the Athletic Association. He performed in the Glee and Mandolin Club, was a football and basketball cheerleader, and participated in other campus organizations.

But after graduating, Harvey had to face some harsh realities. Nobody wanted to hire a short man. He tried to find work in Atlanta but failed. He borrowed money from his siblings and went to New York City, where he met similar disappointing results.

In a profile in the Atlanta Journal, Harvey said, “Everywhere I went, the executives and personnel managers turned me down flat, without even giving me a mental examination. That was the first and last time I ever found my size as a real handicap in the business world, but I refused to let that get me down, although I was feeling pretty low when I came dragging home.”

I walked past this building of the law school at UGA almost every day when I was a student. I like knowing I shared the same pathway as Harvey, someone I would have liked to have called a friend. Photo courtesy of Tisinger Vance, C.P.

I walked past this building of the law school at UGA almost every day when I was a student. I like knowing I shared the same sidewalks as Harvey, someone I would have liked to have called a friend. Photo courtesy of Tisinger Vance, C.P.

But Harvey didn’t give up. Having been encouraged by a West Georgia Agricultural and Mechanical School professor who saw him win a debate contest, he decided to get his law degree at UGA. In law school, Harvey continued participating in many of the same organizations he was involved in while an undergraduate. The leadership qualities he developed matured and he was selected as a “Counselor,” vice president of the Demosthenian Society, vice president of the senior class, and president of the Athletic Association.

Harvey was ready to go back to Carrollton and get to work. “A lawyer isn’t hired by a personnel manager, and the people around Carrollton where I intended to practice knew the stuff I was made of and what I could do.”

This small photo from 1926 shows Harvey in his law office in Carrollton.

This small photo from 1926 shows Harvey in his law office in Carrollton.

Harvey practiced law in Carrollton from 1922 to 1934. He undertook the general practice of law as a sole practitioner but also served in federal bankruptcy court as a “referee in bankruptcy.” After his brother Bob joined the firm, Harvey left Carrollton for Atlanta. He assumed the position of an assistant U. S. district attorney, serving in that position from 1934 to 1958.

After he retired, it was reported that Harvey served six attorneys general, four district attorneys, and represented six federal wardens at the U. S. Penitentiary in Atlanta. During his tenure, he convicted approximately 2,500 defendants and handled almost 1,800 habeas corpus proceedings. After his retirement from the U. S. District Attorney’s office, Harvey continued to practice law in Atlanta until his death in 1959.

Bob continued at the Carrollton law firm Harvey founded until 1963. It exists today as Tisinger Vance P.C., with 13 attorneys. Three of them are Tisingers and all three attended the University of Georgia Law School. Most of the information about Harvey I got to write this blog post came from the Tisinger Vance web site.

I never found anything on Lucy, she doesn’t appear in any records on Ancestry.com so her fate remains a mystery to me.

But Harvey’s story stays with me. He made his own way in a world where short men can still be quietly discriminated against, even today. He did not let it hold him back.

His quote in the Pandora, UGA’s yearbook, says it all: “If you’ve managed to keep your own respect, you needn’t worry about that of others; you’ll have it.”

You were right, Harvey.

HarveyTisinger

The Elephant In the Room (or Under the University)

My father was a huge believer in higher education. That’s because he never had the opportunity to go to college himself, although being in the U.S. Air Force definitely taught him a lot. When exactly he fell in love with the University of Georgia, I don’t now. But I think a very talented athlete named Herschel Walker had something to do with it.

Because of that, Dad made it clear his daughters were going to go to college. At UGA. And get master’s degrees.

Dad and his idol, Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker.

Dad and his idol, Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker.

My sister only attended UGA for one quarter before transferring to Georgia State, where her boyfriend (who is now her husband) was going to college. So it fell to me to undertake the mantle of DWGUGA (Daughter Who Graduated from UGA). I received my bachelor’s in journalism in 1988 and went on to get a master’s in English literature in 1990. My niece, Katie, will graduate from UGA in May. I know Dad will be smiling down on his granddaughter when she gets her diploma.

While Dad clearly loved the state’s flagship university, he had a keen appreciation for other institutions of higher learning. Oglethorpe University was one of them. Whenever we were in the Lenox Mall area and had an opportunity to drive by, we did so. He always referred to it (many people do) as “The Castle” because its stadium wall looks like one, with its turrets and flags. I like to think if it hadn’t been UGA, he would have encouraged me to try Oglethorpe (if I could get a scholarship).

Although Harry Hermance had great plans for Oglethorpe's stadium, only part of it came to fruition.

Although Harry Hermance had great plans for Oglethorpe’s stadium, only part of it came to fruition.

Hermance Stadium was part of a grand scheme by F.H. Woolworth executive Harry Hermance. He pledged $50,000 to build it and in October 1929, the first section was dedicated during a football game against the University of Dayton. Since that’s the town of my birth (and Dad’s), the irony is not lost on me. Unfortunately, the Crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression abruptly curtailed Hermance’s fortunes and the stadium was never completed.

It wasn’t until I met my husband, Chris, a 2001 Oglethorpe graduate, that I began to learn much more about its rich history. He is fiercely loyal to his alma mater and has served on a number of OU boards and committees over the years.

OUScapeImage

Established in 1835, Oglethorpe University was named after James Oglethorpe, who was a British general, Member of Parliament, philanthropist, and founder of the colony of Georgia.

But as a cemetery hopper, there’s one story about Oglethorpe that really got my attention when I first heard it.

There’s an elephant buried somewhere on campus.

In 1941, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus pulled into downtown Atlanta. Nothing unusual there. Not until 11 of its elephants died from arsenic poisoning. Some of the old hands who worked for the circus claimed it may have happened when the circus stopped in Charlotte, N.C. near a chemical plant. Nobody knows for sure.

During that time, Oglethorpe had a fledgling medical school (it no longer exists). When faculty member Dr. John Bernard found out about the elephants’ tragic deaths, he seized on the opportunity in order for his comparative anatomy students to benefit.

The front of Lowry Hall today. In 1941, it was not part of the Philip Weltner Library.

The front of Lowry Hall today, now part of the Philip Weltner Library. The Oglethrope University Museum, one of my favorites, is on the top floor.

According to Oglethorpe alumnus (and adjunct lecturer) Dr. Paul Hudson, Dr. Barnard asked some of his medical students to fetch one of the elephant carcases on a flatbed truck and drive it back to the campus. Lab assistant Johnny Kelly and the students unloaded it near Lowry Hall, which was later expanded into the current Philip Weltner Library.

I can imagine the conversation that took place among those students when their professor proposed his plan.

Student 1: Hey, Dr. Barnard wants us to go pick up a dead elephant downtown.

Student 2: No way!

Student 1: Way! Wanna come with?

Student 2: Will we get extra credit?

Well, maybe not exactly like that. But close.

Over the next week, in the cool November weather, the medical students dissected the elephant. When they were done, they dug a large hole and buried the ill-fated pachyderm’s remains behind Lowry Hall. Nobody knows exactly where since no sign was ever placed there to note the occasion. It’s thought to be under where the Weltner Library now stands.

Targa the elephany emerges from the Ringling Brothers circus train in the Bronx, N.Y. This is not the elephant that was dissected at Oglethorpe.

Targa the elephany emerges from the Ringling Brothers circus train in the Bronx, N.Y. This is not the elephant dissected at Oglethorpe.

I asked Chris why no memorial plaque was ever put up to honor the elephant for its sacrifice and he doesn’t know. Maybe when I next see Dr. Larry Schall, OU’s current president (and a very cool guy that I enjoy talking to), I’ll ask him.

Because while it’s never easy to talk about the Elephant in the Room, sometimes you have to.

Especially when it’s under your University.

Coincidentally, Walt Disney's Dumbo was released in 1941.

Coincidentally, Walt Disney’s Dumbo was released in 1941.

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