hidden stories graveyard

Illustration: Kate Bingaman-Burt

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Written in Stone

Here in this cemetery near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I'm crafting an epic. I'm starting with footnotes, the clues at my disposal: the graves. These dates (born, married, died) and designations (daughter of, wife of, mother of) are the bones of a narrative. So I'm weaving, spinning, flat-out making up.

I don't know the Shanabrooks, a mother and daughter who share the first name Violet. But they were a helluva twosome, I'm sure. When Big Violet went to the Amish market on Saturday, Little Violet followed in lace-up black shoes. Big Violet taught Little Violet how to say her prayers. In 1972, when Big Violet died, Little Violet said those prayers at her mother's bedside.

The Violets are unique; most of the shared plots belong to spouses. Henry and Lillian Dotterer both were born in 1906. Oh, wait—maybe they were twins. Maybe Lillian was Henry's never-married sister who eschewed the word spinster and joked that Henry was the only man she could tolerate. Henry and Lillian died in 1972 and 1971: He survived only a year without her.

And then there's Ethel Gerlach, married to John F. Gerlach. If Ethel were here, I'd be all, "Tell me, was he as handsome as the other John F.?" Ethel would go, "The president had nothing on my husband." In 1939, Ethel had her first child, Bobby. It's the Bobby Gerlachs of the world who make cemetery math a wrenching proposition: His stone reads 1939–1948 and is engraved with the phrase STEP SOFTLY, A DREAM LIES BURIED HERE. In 1950, Ethel had Connie Lou. 1950–1950, Connie Lou's stone reads. And then: BUDDED ON EARTH TO BLOOM IN HEAVEN.

A grave like the Gerlachs' is a sweeping tale; it's Roots and Gone with the Wind. But this isn't fiction. These were real people, people who lived. Lived, loved, hoped. Tried, failed, healed. Were born, married, and died.

—By Penny Wren