Monday, September 23, 2013

Ghosts Are Good For Business, Part 3

When last I left you, I was returning my dowsing rods at the Prairie Home Cemetery in Holdrege, Nebraska. Skip Meyer, the class instructor, had much more on his agenda than just locating bodies underground!

Holdrege is an old cemetery by Nebraska standards. It’s not old by east coast standards and certainly not by European standards. However, we do have some century-old tombstones here, and that’s what sparked my interest in this class. 

I normally don’t frequent cemeteries, but two years ago I needed some garden dirt. Our cemetery has great soil, and it’s free for the taking (just don't let yourself dwell on why there are piles of dirt!) I made about six trips to the cemetery on behalf of my flower garden. Each time I went, I took the driveway that went by the oldest tombstones, dating to the 1800’s.

What moved me most on these trips, was how many young people were buried in this section. Statistically, half the children born in the 1800’s died before the age of ten. The typical child headstone was inexpensive and bore the impression of a dove, angel, or lamb. Many of the headstones from this time period, both child and adult, were ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog:

One unusual and particularly touching grave site offered us a lesson in how to read old headstones covered in moss. The traditional school of thought is to put a piece of paper over the headstone and do a crayon/pencil rubbing of the inscription. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but it’s not as easy as you think! Skip maintains that crayon rubbings damage old stones. Instead, he advocates using shaving cream! 

"Baby Gene, Let's Go Peep Mamma"
3 year-old child

First get permission from the cemetery office (if there is one). Take a can of NON-MENTHOL shaving cream. This is very important for the safety of the stone! Spray it onto a putty knife or paint spatula. Gently rub it across the stone. The inscription will pop out with perfect clarity! When you’re finished, take a spray bottle of plain water and squirt the stone clean.

Exploring cemeteries may see macabre to some people, but to me, it's a powerful reminder that we were put on this earth to love one another. I left the cemetery class a humbler woman than when I arrived.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Halloween, Back in the Day

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Always has been, always will be. I was raised in a time when kids dressed like hobos or bums for Halloween. Not very p.c. these days, but the costumes were original and created at no cost. These days, little effort goes into costumes. With cheap overseas factories, parents won't blink twice at shelling out $20-$40 bucks (or more) for nice store bought costumes. 

Don't mind me. I'm just jealous. I grew up in the '70's. We had store bought too, but here's what we got:

I can still smell the plastic and feel the sweat running down my face! And the elastic...that was good for about ten seconds, then it gave out and your mask kept falling down all night. But year after year, the stores stocked their shelves with these boxes, and we kids couldn't be happier!

Other Halloween traditions have changed as well, and not for the better:

1. Treats: Forget the homemade stuff. Even in my day, kids were cautioned against eating anything unmanufactured. I still remember my third grade teacher terrifying us with tales of psychos putting razor blades in apples. I asked my 14 year-old daughter if she'd ever heard of this. She asked, "What's a razor blade?"

4. Trick or Treat Pansies: On October 31st, we donned our cheapo plastic costumes and headed out the door just like little mailmen: Neither rain, nor sleet, nor other crappy weather.... Modern parents will gasp, but we actually had to trick or treat in inclement weather. We didn't wimp out at malls or retirement homes. No! We braved the elements and went door to door with hundreds of other kids in our neighborhood. The air was cold and smelled liked leaves and fireplaces. We were frozen to our marrow, but no one cared, least of all our parents. It was the best night of the year! These days, it's impossible to even guess how much candy to buy. I overheard one young mother say, "We don't trick or treat outside if it's below 70." Cover your ears, Great Pumpkin!

5. Foam Jack-o-Lanterns: Carve it once, store it, reuse it for a lifetime. Seriously??? WHAT IS THE FUN IN THAT! Give your kids a carving knife, say a little prayer they don't cut off a finger, and let them dive into the goo! Pumpkin carving is an all sensory experience, not to mention better for the planet. Think how much petroleum goes into making those foam fakes!

Sometimes I feel like Grandpa Phil on Duck Dynasty, disgusted with the way our kids are being brought up. All I know is that Halloween done right makes kids "Happy Happy Happy!" Try not to ruin it.

Ghosts are Good for Business, Part 2

If you didn't read Ghosts are Good For Business, Part 1, let me bring you up to speed: Last April, I signed up for a one day cemetery class offered through our local community college.
Nebraskans love their football!

Sixteen people showed up for the spring class. We were a varied bunch. Three couples were east coast vacationers following the path of the Oregon Trail. Three men were superintendents of their hometown cemeteries, wanting to learn about headstone preservation. And the rest were like me: adventure seekers, curious about the history and lore of the Prairie Home Cemetery in Holdrege, Nebraska.

Gathering at the start of class.

Skip Meyer was our guide for the day. An acknowledged expert on the subject of Nebraska’s oldest cemeteries, this was his 26th year giving cemetery tours. He started us out with the most mind-blowing activity I could ever imagine: DOWSING.

Of course, I’d heard of the ancient practice of dowsing for water, but I’d never heard of dowsing for bodies! Skip opened the tailgate of his pick-up and handed us each a pair of dowsers, homemade L-shaped rods made of stainless steel or brass.  Some were short, others long, but this didn’t bother Skip. “They’ll all work,” he promised.

He showed us the proper grip (not too tight, not too loose) and proper walking form: elbows bent, arms comfortably in front of you, rods parallel to each other. As luck would have it, we had a perfect day for this activity: zero wind. Had their been any wind, we wouldn’t have believed what happened next!

Skip instructed us to spread out and walk across graves (history point: bodies were traditionally buried on the east side of tombstones for religious reasons).  He demonstrated. As he approached a grave site, his dowsing rods crossed into an X with lightning speed.

“You did that yourself,” grunted one of our group members.

"You try,” smiled Skip.

The writer in me wanted to observe first, so I watched as person after person stepped across graves. Every one of their rods moved the minute they neared one. Some made a V instead of an X, indicating reverse polarity in the individual carrying the rods. Gasps of awe filled the air. I had to try this myself!

Checking with Skip to make sure my grip was correct, I walked down a bare grassy strip that contained no headstones. With no wind to nudge them, the rods remained perfectly parallel. Then I headed to the east side of a grave dated 1863. The rods crossed decisively. My heart started pounding. I knew I didn’t make that happen!!! I tried it again, this time on a grave dated 1954. The rods crossed immediately!

I’m a logical person and wanted to desperately to understand this. I swung around for a third attempt on an even newer grave. This time, however, the rods didn't cross. Maybe I didn’t approach the headstone right. I circled around making sure my grip wasn’t too tight and crossed the grave again. Nothing. I called Skip to ask him what went wrong. He’d been watching. He crossed over to me and told me to look at the headstone. It was a brand new one, made of beautiful brown marble. The birth date was on it, but the death date was blank. The owner hadn’t died yet, so there was no body to move the rods! I was now 100 percent convinced this wasn’t a trick.

I asked Skip what caused this phenomena. He said he believes a field of static electricity builds around bodies and bones, which causes the rods to cross. I asked him if the rods would cross for animal bones. He answered yes.

Dowsing was so fun, I could have done it all day, but Skip had an agenda to keep. We returned the dowsing rods to the truck and continued on with the most fascinating tour I’ve ever been on. (Ghost blog, part 3 coming up!)

If you’d like to make your own dowsing rods, they’re simple and cheap: Get a three foot length of brass or stainless steel rod from your local hardware store. Bend five or six inches into a handle and head to the nearest cemetery. One thing, though: make sure to go on a windless day!! The dowsing will work, but the skeptic in you won’t believe it if you have the breeze to blame!  Great fun for kids and adults alike, especially as we head into the Halloween season.  Enjoy!