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Five Faves - Local Tombstones

Historian highlights interesting local tombstones

When they were younger, my daughters would hold their breath when we drove by a cemetery. Holding my breath near a cemetery would have been a problem for me as a kid, since I spent a lot of time in cemeteries with my brother, the family genealogist who loved to quiz me at a family plot as to who was who. Unfortunately, I did not pass all his examinations. Over the years, my interest in cemeteries has changed from focusing on family to concentrating on design and architecture, points I make when giving walking tours of these areas.

Here are five of my favorite local tombstones:

Allen Family Monument
Mountain Home Cemetery

This prominent granite globe, positioned at a high point in the cemetery, has specific significance for this family. In 1865 Oscar M. Allen Sr. organized the Globe Casket Co., which was one of the first in the country to make cloth-lined caskets and was in business until 1950. One of his sons also used the name Globe for the construction company he started in 1912, a company that is still in operation. Born in New York, Oscar Sr. came to Michigan in 1837, finding his way to Kalamazoo by 1853. He owned companies that papered and painted house interiors and sold furniture, and he created the village’s first dollar store. Buried in this family plot are Oscar Sr., his wife Hannah, five of their eight children, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter.

Anna Jannasch-Shortt Gravestone
Riverside Cemetery

Anna came to Kalamazoo from Germany with her family in 1850. After graduating from high school, she became a teacher in 1868. Already teaching music privately, she opened her own music institute in 1879 on East Michigan Avenue east of Portage Street. Local advertisements and articles listed 19 different instruments she taught for close to 50 years, until her death in 1924. In 1902, a new building at 254 E. Michigan Ave. was completed for her that still stands. Around 1889, Anna called herself Madam. She later stated in her will that this moniker would be on her tombstone, and she also left very explicit instructions on the color of her casket and dress and requested a brass band to accompany her body to the cemetery.

Tree-stump Tombstones:
Wagner Family Monument
Riverside Cemetery

Found in many cemeteries, tree-stump tombstones are one of my favorite types of monuments for their uniqueness. Filled with so much detail and symbolism, these limestone markers became popular during a rustic movement from 1880 to 1905. Found in catalogs like Sears, the monuments also were available to members of a fraternal organization called the Modern Woodmen of America that had nothing to do with lumbering. (It’s a member-owned fraternal financial services organization.) The stones were decorated with such items as ferns, ivy, flowers, books and animals, which all symbolized a wide variety of wishes and desires for the deceased. The length of limbs or branches on a stone could signify the longevity of the deceased. This monument is for the Wagner family. The individual headstones for family members are in the shape of logs.

Sutherland Family Monument
Riverside Cemetery

Born on a farm in Portage Township, the Sutherland brothers, Frederick and Louis, became involved early in their careers with the local paper industry. In 1917 they formed the Kalamazoo Sanitary Carton Co., which produced packaging for food-related products and was later renamed the Sutherland Paper Co. This monument, erected after Frederick’s death in 1939, has a vertical, linear design reflective of the Art Deco style very popular during the 1920s and 1930s for a wide variety of items, including buildings and home decor. The headstones for Frederick and his wife, Bessie, also have the same style. Buried next to them are Louis and his wife, Agnes, all four together in death as they were in life.

White Bronze Monuments:
Potts Family Monument
Mountain Home Cemetery

Another of my favorite types of cemetery monuments are white bronze monuments — a misleading label because they are made not of bronze, but of zinc carbonate. Bronze, however, sounded more appealing. Popular between 1870 and 1915 and predominantly purchased from catalogs, these monuments ranged in price from $6 to $5,000 and came in many different sizes and shapes. One could choose a certain design and pick out specific panels with different symbols. The Potts family monument contains corn, wheat, an anchor, a crown and a chain, which all have multiple meanings. Unfortunately, because of the material from which these monuments were made, they became brittle, and many bent and cracked. Eventually their popularity waned, but many cemeteries still have them, both big and small.

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About the Author

Lynn Houghton

Lynn Houghton is the regional history curator at the Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections. She leads the Gazelle Sports Historic Walks, a series of free architectural and historic walks held at various locations in Kalamazoo County during the summer and fall, and is the co-author of Kalamazoo Lost and Found. She also participated in the PBS series 10 that Shaped America. She has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history from WMU and a master’s in library and information science from Wayne State University.