Cemetery tour provides stories behind symbols
Dozens of area residents recently spent a Sunday afternoon leisurely walking through Oak Hill Cemetery in Hammond.
But they weren’t there to visit family members or friends, they were participants in the 20th annual Oak Hill Cemetery Tour, sponsored by the Hammond Historical Society.
This year’s theme was: “Identifying Stones and Symbols” (to honor the deceased) on 12 gravesites.
“This particular tour is unlike all previous walks, in that we will observe personalized symbols that families chose to engrave on various type of surfaces to memorialize their loved ones,” Ruth Mores, Hammond Historical Society vice president and tour guide, said as she greeted visitors. “Some of the oldest stones have lost their messages due to the passage of time and weather conditions — while others continue to offer glimpses of past lives lost but not forgotten.”
The first stop on the path of one dozen unique graves, constructed of various materials, was the Rose family monument.
The top part of the fourpart rose-colored granite stone is engraved with ornate arches (inscribed “MOTHER” and “FATHER” with the large letter “R” in the middle.
The second (main) part is a solid piece of Vermont red granite; the third is a large, finished, but not polished, white granite base with a cut out rose. The three parts are situated on a huge piece of limestone with another arch.
Marble was used for headstones mostly from the 1870s to the mid-1920s, according to the tour guide.
“This material is mostly damaged by wind and rain,” Mores said. “Marble was easy to carve, but can slowly dissolve over time, until you may not be able to read the inscriptions.”
Also, large pieces of marble will crack as they settle, she added.
The second gravesite visited on the tour was the burial ground of the Tapper family, consisting of some of Hammond’s earliest settlers.
The family patriarch died at sea, so the cross, pillars, large anchor and decorative leaves on the front of the memorial — all hand-carved by stone artisans — held special meaning for the family left behind.
In addition to headstones made of limestone, granite or marble, the tour visitors also observed some made of metal.
White bronze was a fancy name for grave markers made from zinc, which was used nationwide from the 1870s to about 1912.
They were purchased for several reasons — less expensive than their counterparts, and they could be customized with scrollwork, wreaths or roses — and they held up better than neighboring marble stone monuments.
“Some marble memorials that are weather worn (with time) can barely be read,” said tour guide Marc Males. “But those fashioned in zinc stood the test of time much better.”
Hammond resident Paul Dilbeck brought his daughters Faith, 12, and Ellen, 9, to the cemetery tour fundraiser.
“This (tour) is a great idea,” he said, “People can have an understanding of early settlers and take pride in their community.”
Seeing is different than just reading about it in a book, he added, so the tour proved more personal to his daughters.
The annual cemetery tour began in 1997, after Hammond resident and genealogist Suzanne G. Long, along with a group from the South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society, transcribed Oak Hill gravestones for a society publication.
Long used her knowledge to create that first tour as a fundraiser.
After Long’s death in 2002, the Hammond Public Library changed the name of their Calumet Room to the Suzanne G. Long History Room in her honor.
For more information, call 219-931-5100.
Tour guide Marc Mikals points out symbols and etchings on one of the burial monuments in Oak Hill Cemetery in Hammond. The patriarch of the family died at sea, which is the reason for the anchor on the front of this gravestone.