Modern American society copes poorly with the idea of death. By and large, Americans do their level best not to think, much less talk, about it. But our ancestors saw death as a part of the life cycle, as evidenced by the holiday of Halloween.
What Americans now celebrate with bite-sized candy and elaborate costumes has its roots in the Celtic holiday of Samhain, when, in the haunting description on Wikipedia, the "border between this world and the Otherworld became thin...allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through."
Cemeteries, of course, are still associated with Halloween. And there's no better time of year to take a cemetery stroll. As the season dies, leaves rustle underfoot, branches creak, and it's easy to feel a chill, a frisson that speaks of the otherworld.
Two of Madison's main cemeteries, Forest Hill and Resurrection, lie directly across from each other on Speedway Road. On a cloudy fall afternoon, there's both a peace and a pull among the headstones. Wandering among the Italian section in Resurrection, I am suddenly confronted with a familiar family name in large block letters - the resting place of my Irish great-uncle. It's surprising, but it makes me feel at home.
In the Victorian era, "garden" cemeteries became popular destinations for outings and picnics. Forest Hill is laid out in serpentine paths typical of a garden cemetery, although it lacks the more extravagant monuments found in cemeteries like Milwaukee's Forest Home or Chicago's Graceland; few stone angels lie prone and weeping over a grave. Resurrection has a few more angels, but they're more diminutive and decorative than life-size models of grief.
Forest Hill has a large number of Art Deco-influenced headstones and a concentration of famous Madison and university names. Resurrection is home to many Italians with names familiar from restaurants and civic involvement. Many of their stories are told in the books Bishops to Bootleggers and A Biographical Guide to Forest Hill Cemetery, both by Historic Madison Inc. Other stories have been lost to time.
But headstones, no matter what they say or what symbolism is ensconced there, can only hint to us of the lives of the dead. Those who were famous in their day can fade after a generation just as easily as the everyman, but a singular headstone marker can confer an eerie immortality.
Here, then, is a sampling of the more notable monuments to the dead to be found in Madison -- some of people whose names are still remembered, some whose fame has faded with time, and some as obscure in their time as now.
Annie Lemberger, Resurrection H-6
One of Madison's most notorious crimes was the kidnapping and murder of young Annie Lemberger, age 7, stolen away from her parents' home in the early morning hours of Sept. 6, 1911. Three days later her body was found in Monona Bay. John Johnson, known as "Dogskin" Johnson, a neighbor, confessed to the crime but later recanted. He was sent to prison. Ten years later, Annie's father, Martin, was accused of having killed the little girl, with other family members implicated in a cover-up. The Lembergers never got out from under the shadow of suspicion. Also buried at this site are an infant son, Joseph, and daughter Marie, said to have succumbed to the stress of the case at age 19.
Mark Lemberger, who would have been Annie's nephew, tried to piece the story together once and for all in his 1993 book Crime of Magnitude: The Murder of Little Annie, ultimately concluding that Annie was killed by Johnson.
John "Dogskin" Johnson is buried across the Speedway Road in Forest Hill cemetery, in section 25.
Vincenza Bongiovanni, Resurrection H-22
The plaintive and beautiful face of Vincenza Bongiovanni is in an oval portrait frame right on her headstone, a common custom in the mostly Italian section in Resurrection near the Regent Street entrance. Vincenza, an Italian immigrant, was just 35 when she took her own life, according to newspaper reports, although there was also some police suspicion of her husband, as they could find no gun. Even more heartbreaking: The death took place on Christmas Day. She left her husband and five children, one just an infant.
Giovanni Quartuccio, Resurrection H-31
The portrait of immigrant Giovanni Quartuccio is likewise affixed right on his monument. In Bishops to Bootleggers, the story is told of Giovanni arguing over money or customs with boarders he had at his house at 12 N. Murray St. As the conflict escalated, his son Nicolo shot one of the boarders, who later died. Nicolo argued that he was protecting his father but ended up serving six years at Waupun.
Charles Kendall Adams, Forest Hill section 34
This large rectangular block lists highlights from Adams' résumé, including being president of both Cornell and the UW-Madison. But nothing here is as memorable as his famous quotation on academic freedom inscribed on Bascom Hall: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."
Frieda Ziebarth, Forest Hill section 24
This otherwise unassuming headstone attracted my attention because of its sad inscription, "Budded on earth to bloom in heaven," and its subdued ivy motif. According to the Biographical Guide to Forest Hill Cemetery, the 12-year-old Frieda succumbed to the ravages of the devastating 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
Breese Stevens, Forest Hill section 2
Stevens, the 20th mayor of Madison, has a large yet dignified rectangular block headstone. His first wife, Emma Fuller, died in childbirth and is memorialized with the Fuller family. His second wife is here with him, with a haunting inscription taken from Song of Solomon: "Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether."
Thomas Rudolph and Madeline Johnson Hefty, Forest Hill section 20
This large rectangular headstone, where Madison banker Thomas Hefty and his wife are buried, depicts scenes from the heartland. On the left, a couple grieve in a country churchyard cemetery; on the right, a barefoot farming couple stand amid sheaves of wheat, holding a bowl of apples. This may refer to Hefty's birth in New Glarus, or the fact that Hefty maintained "business sidelines, like his farms," according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
The scene of the grieving couple may refer to the death of 10-year old Anne Pearce Hefty, also memorialized at the site. Anne was, in her obituaries, referred to as an "invalid" who spent most of her life in a hospital outside of Philadelphia.
The Heftys donated their mansion in Maple Bluff to the state of Wisconsin, and it is used today as the executive residence. On the back of the stone is the inscription: "Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them."
Conrad Elvehjem, Forest Hill section 25
UW-Madison president Conrad Elvehjem was a scientist, and this large Deco-influenced marker depicts symbols from his academic life. The beaming sun, the lamp of learning, a book, a microscope, plants, a fish - all tokens of a life spent in science. "Give us then the hills to climb and the strength to climb them," from his 1958 inaugural address as university president, is at the foot of the marker. Elvehjem died suddenly of a heart attack while at home.
Harry Steenbock, Forest Hill section 32
Like Elvehjem, Harry Steenbock was a scientist focusing on vitamin research and nutrition, and his monument features stylized icons very similar to Elvehjem's: rays of sunshine, lamp, microscope, a cow, even a chain of molecules to represent his scholarly achievements, the highlight of which was the discovery of vitamin D. A "D" appears among the icons along with an "A" and "B." He also died of a heart attack.
Whitaker-Ellis, Forest Hill section 14
This unusual eight-sided Art Deco monument actually bears a "copyright 1931 by Schlimgen Memorials" inscription on its base. (Schlimgen was a Madison monument firm located on University Avenue.) The inscription that encircles seven sides is "Nor can any man's life be appraised until it is finished."
Memorialized here are members of the Henry Charles Whitaker family. Whitaker, born in Vermont, began his work life as a sports reporter, later moving to Chicago for a career in trade publishing. He eventually began his own company in Madison, Allied Arts Publishing, which published magazines called Monumental News and Park and Cemetery, which probably explains the elaborate burial marker.
His daughter, Dorothy Whitaker Ellis, is buried here with her husband, Robert Ellis, a lifelong Madison resident and 1917 UW-Madison graduate. He served as a flight instructor in World War I. The couple ran a Madison interior decoration business called the Ellis Shops for more than 40 years; it was located at 1515 Monroe St.
Daniel and Mary Otis, Forest Hill section 14
Daniel Otis was a UW-Madison professor and onetime assistant dean in the College of Agriculture. Mary was a cofounder of the "Daughters of Demeter," a society for College of Ag female faculty and faculty wives. The monument stands out for its anonymous quotation: "Vision without a task is a dream, task without a vision is a drudgery, task with a vision is a challenge."
Mao Vang Yang, Forest Hill section 44
Funeral custom is very important in Hmong culture, and that is reflected in elaborate headstones. Often a smooth black monument features a photo or etching of the deceased as well as an etching of a Laotian landscape on the reverse of the stone. Mao Vang Yang was born in Laos. "In memory of our beloved mother, whose heroic determination won her freedom and reunification with her husband and children," reads the front inscription, and the opposite side depicts a rice field and banana trees as well as a photo of her in her youth with the inscription "Forever in our hearts."