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North Hills Monthly

There’s Nothing Scary about Historic Cemeteries

Sep 30, 2014 04:46PM ● By Vanessa Orr
I like cemeteries. I know, that’s not a sentence that you read in a lot of travel articles, but the fact is, I really enjoy visiting cemeteries when I travel to learn more about the history of an area. And while this might seem a little strange, I know I’m not alone—Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, for example, attracts more than 4 million people a year. And Elvis’ grave? 600,000 people per year. So, in the spirit of Halloween month, I’m going to write about some of my favorite graveyards—places that I would recommend that you visit if you like history or architecture, or just a good story.

One of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve had the pleasure to visit is the historic Spring Hill Cemetery Park, where the 200-acre grounds overlook the gold-domed capitol building of Charleston, WV. Established in 1869, Spring Hill is still an active cemetery, but is also a popular site for visitors, including birdwatchers, walkers, historians and schoolchildren who use it as an outdoor classroom. Just a short walk around the beautifully manicured grounds gives one a deep sense of the area’s history—both Civil War Confederate and Union soldiers are buried there, as are governors, a senator and a Supreme Court justice, and many members of West Virginia’s founding families. Grave markers range from towering, 30-foot high obelisks weighing 35 tons to intricately carved Celtic crosses to weeping angels; one of my favorite plots is that of the Stump family, where stone markers are artfully carved into the form of tree stumps. Another memorable gravesite is the Thayer monument, which is hollow and made of pure zinc; as the story goes, removable panels made it the hiding place of choice by bootleggers during Prohibition.

Also in West Virginia, near the town of Sarah Ann, is the resting place of Captain ‘Devil Anse’ Hatfield, the patriarch of one of the families involved in the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. Located on land that still belongs to Hatfield descendants, the cemetery, which is still in use, is presided over by a huge, $3,000 marble statue of Hatfield that he had carved of himself in Italy and then hauled up the mountainside by mules. He chose the spot because it was “nice and dry,” and was laid to rest there in 1921, when he passed away at the age of 83. Looking at his formidable countenance, one can see how he could hold a grudge—even one that lasted for 23 years.

Heading east, one can visit what is probably the most famous resting place of all, Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA. Two presidents are buried here—John F. Kennedy and William H. Taft, as are more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans and their families. Each year, the cemetery performs more than 7,000 services; between 27 and 30 each weekday. Despite this fact, the cemetery isn’t a sad place; one can’t help but feel proud and privileged to be an American after spending time here. Especially moving is the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which takes place every half-hour or hour, depending on the time of year. The Tomb of the Unknown Solider is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in any weather; a fitting tribute to honor all American service members who are “Known But to God.”

In addition to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there are many other distinctive monuments on the 624-acre site, including the Coast Guard Memorial, Pan Am Flight 103 Memorial and the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, among others. More than 17,000 Civil War dead are buried at Arlington, as are a number of Supreme Court justices and senators and well-known celebrities, including actor Lee Marvin and boxer Joe Louis. Despite its many visitors and its almost overwhelming size, Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most peaceful places that I’ve ever visited—I truly believe that everyone who lives in this country should see it at least once.

Even if you don’t have time to take an out-of-state trip, there are many beautiful, historic cemeteries in Pennsylvania, including one just up the road from the North Hills—the Evans City Cemetery. How many cemeteries do you know of that have been featured in one of the all-time greatest horror movies, Night of the Living Dead? The Chapel, which is in the opening scene of George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, still stands—in fact, it was scheduled to be torn down two years ago, but fans undertook a grassroots effort to restore it at a cost of roughly $50,000. The new chapel will be dedicated at a festival this October, but you can visit the cemetery at any time. Just please be respectful; it is still an active cemetery, despite making movie history. Also make sure to stop into The Living Dead Museum and Gift Shop, which is located about five minutes away on E. Main Street in Evans City. Owner Kevin Kriess can tell you anything you want to know about the movie and how it influenced today’s zombie culture, including current TV smash, The Walking Dead.