Archive for Thursday, March 2, 2006

Tombstones ‘talk’ to KSU professor

Historian delivers lecture during grand reopening week at Lansing museum

March 2, 2006

Few people go to cemeteries for the fun of it.

But Albert Hamscher, professor of history at Kansas State University, can't stay away because the graves talk to him, and they tell fascinating stories.

"Think of a cemetery as kind of geological layers of time. And when you walk into a cemetery and when you see all of these things : you're taking a walk through the past. You're taking a walk through history," said Hamscher, author of "Kansas Cemeteries in History."

"What you see on these tombstones shows us the attitudes and values of people. That's what I meant by 'talking tombstones.' They talk to us."

Hamscher, presenting a slide show Saturday to a packed room at the Lansing Historical Museum, said during the many trips he made to cemeteries in Kansas and California, the dead have told him about cultural change.

He believes death confronts people less than it did a century ago, which leads them to bury their deceased in different ways. Many times, Hamscher explained, tombstones have become smaller, less visible and less personalized.

"I try to have a little background with the whole sort of death-avoidance thing we have in the 20th century," he said. "And isn't the memorial park cemetery a perfect expression of that alienation from death?"

Hamscher believes that as a society, the transition to using memorial parks is representative of an attitude shift about death.

Gene Kirby, the manager of Lansing's 140-year old Mount Muncie Cemetery, attended Hamscher's talk, but said he hadn't seen too much difference locally.

"As far as people's attitudes changing, I don't know that they're changing," Kirby said. "I've seen kids forced to look at a casket, you know; I've seen people drag them over and say, you know, 'Look, here it is.' It's just everybody's individual taste, I think."

The process of burying someone still is basically the same, Kirby said, largely because the business hasn't changed much.

"There's not a whole lot different you can do about it," Kirby says. "With monuments and markers now they can do laser etching and those kinds of things that actually make it look like a picture, so there's some of that kind of thing that has changed, but other than that not really. I mean, you still got to dig the hole and fill it up."

Before Hamscher spoke, he drove through Mount Muncie, the final resting place of notables such as Richard Hickock and Perry Smith (the infamous "In Cold Blood" killers) and David Josiah Brewer, a Kansas Supreme Court judge. Hamscher noticed that the changes he has seen in many other cemeteries are less present here, and suggested that the military's influence in the area might have lead people to keep their monuments stark and elegant.

But whether elaborate or simple, tombstones are representative of the lives of the deceased they mark. And if Hamscher listens hard enough, he hears a bit about their life and the society they lived in.

"They are telling us about themselves; what was important to them and what not," Hamscher said. "It's a way to read culture:it really is."

Hamscher was one of four speakers last week appearing as part of the museum's grand reopening. Others who spoke were Jim Hoy, who presented "Home on the Range: Kansas Folklore"; Sandra P. Reddish, who talked about "Kansas in World War I" and William Worley, who portrayed "Fred Harvey, Railroad Pioneer, 1865-1901."

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

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