When I'm not drawing or watching 40-year old shows on television or sassing someone on the internet, you can find me traipsing trough a cemetery, snapping pictures of grave markers. For over a decade, I have been visiting cemeteries all over the country — sometimes dragging my less-than-enthused family along with me. I sought out graves of famous people — mostly actors and those in the entertainment field. But I have also looked for other, lesser known folks who have made an unsung impact on humankind — if only celebrated for the proverbial "fifteen minutes of fame," only to be relegated to a small, sometimes forgotten, footnote in history as time passed. After my visits, I chronicle the experience with a (usually lengthy) blogpost, complete with photos, annotation and often snarky commentary à la the Josh Pincus you've come to know and love.... or at least know.
I rarely visit a particular cemetery more than once... for several reasons. First off, I'm lazy. Second, I feel once I've been there, wandered around, seen who I wanted to see, I'm done. I can check that one off my list (if I had an actual list). Plus, cemetery visits — especially the way I visit a cemetery — take a lot of planning. Famous people are not buried in their own special section. They are scattered all over the place because death is the great equalizer. No special treatment is given to those who commanded attention in life. Nope, they are just stuck in the ground, cemented into a crypt or incinerated to crispy remains just like everyone else. Sure, their final resting place may be decorated with elaborate sculptures, headstones and other accessories to make them stand out. But they are placed alongside simple folk with simple markers and they are just as simply dead.
Also, cemeteries are usually poorly marked for navigation. Few have posted section designations, Finding Grandma or Uncle Louie could prove difficult if you don't remember exactly
where their plot is because you haven't been there since the funeral and the surrounding area is now overflowing with deceased neighbors. So prior to a planned visit, I track down an online map and meticulously plot a route with the invaluable help of findagrave.com
or the tracking technology employed by various cemetery websites. More recently, my phone's GPS has been very helpful in pinpointing a particular grave lying silently in an obscured sightline.
Lucky for me, Philadelphia boasts a number of cemeteries that serve as the eternal home of some pretty famous people. One of the biggest and most beautiful is Laurel Hill Cemetery. Founded in 1836, Laurel Hill occupies 74 acres along a slender slice of land overlooking the Schuylkill River. It was conceived as a "rural cemetery," and welcomed the community as a gathering place for picnics and other social gatherings on its pastoral landscape, as well as a dignified place for burials. This was not an unusual concept. Laurel Hill, along with its predecessor Mount Auburn in Massachusetts, started a trend to take the "creepiness" out of cemeteries and make them accessible and friendly. This was very well-received, especially in municipalities that lacked the space for a public park. Those places combined the necessity of a cemetery
with the necessity of a park
to much success. I visited Laurel Hill for the first time in 2010 on a very cold December morning. Because the social aspect of Laurel Hill still exists (and is locally promoted), I have been back several times — once for a concert (that's right, a concert!
) and two more times for "The Market of the Macabre," a craft fair geared towards the gruesome with its tongue planted firmly in its skeletal cheek.
|Mary, Sarah and Martha|
Laurel Hill is home to a large number of those who served in the military during various conflicts, including the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the two World Wars. There are the graves of many of Philadelphia's past mayors and other government officials. There are prominent (and not-so-prominent) figures from Philadelphia's history who were instrumental in shaping the nation in its infancy. Small markers have been installed to assist visitors (using a GPS-powered phone app) on a self-guided tour. One can be enlightened to the contributions of Martha Hunt Coston (who invented the signal flare), Sarah Hale (who campaigned diligently to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. Sarah also wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb") and Mary Pennington (who invented the egg carton). To show that they don't take themselves too seriously, there are two headstones on display that were used as props when scenes from movies in the Rocky
saga were filmed at Laurel Hill.
On my first trip, I took pictures of a small sampling of the famous people interred at Laurel Hill. I went equipped with a map and a list and my camera... and a heavy winter coat. It was freezing that day and I did my best to be efficient, minimizing the actual time I spent outside of my car exposed to the elements. After a few hours of taking pictures of the graves on my list, I noticed that there was one name that eluded me — Owen Wister. (He's the fellow pictured at the very top of this post.)
Owen Wister was born into an affluent Philadelphia family in 1860. He attended schools in Europe and eventually graduated from Harvard. At 22, he published a satire of the popular novel The Swiss Family Robinson
. His humorous take was so well-received, it prompted noted author and humorist Mark Twain to write a letter of praise and congratulations to young Owen. The young writer spent many summers in Wyoming, mingling with real-life cowboys and ranch hands. He became intrigued and enamored with the lifestyle and was inspired to write several short stories based on extensive journals he had kept, chronicling his trips. Owen met famed Western artist Frederic Remington, who romanticized cowboys in his paintings, and the two remained life-long friends. Owen also was chums with rugged future president Theodore Roosevelt. With the success of his stories, Owen penned his opus "The Virginian," a sprawling, multi-leveled account of the American cowboy. This 1902 novel is recognized as the first in the Western genre we know today, spawning hundreds upon hundreds of novels, movies and television shows. Owen's novel itself
was the basis for the popular 60s TV series of the same name.
Owen and his family are interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery under matching headstones, each one simply engraved with names, dates and a single cross.... and I'll be goddamned if I couldn't find any of 'em.
I returned to Laurel Hill four years later to see Philly punk rockers The Dead Milkmen in their highly-publicized concert among the crypts. By the time we arrived for the show, it was getting too dark to search for the Wister family plot. My quest would have to be put on hold for another time. I enjoyed the concert and tried not to think about Owen Wister and how the location of his grave mocked me in the darkness.
Just after Labor Day in 2021, Mrs. Pincus and I went to the annual "The Market of the Macabre," where we perused the wares of various vendors, all looking like they were in a dress rehearsal for Halloween. After a once-through of the small market area, I ventured out into the cemetery proper, once again in hot pursuit of my "white whale." I had even talked with one vendor who identified himself as a part-time tour guide at the facility. I asked the guy if he knew the location of Owen Wister's grave off the top of his head. The man rolled his eyes in thought for a second before sputtering out some nonsensical directions while pointing and gesturing to a distant, non-existent, location. In an effort to clarify, I asked where it was in refence to the grave of William Warner. (Though not famous himself,
is. His remains are housed in a striking sarcophagus, designed and created by sculptor Alexander Milne Calder, famous for his statues that adorn Philadelphia's City Hall.) The alleged tour guide pointed some more and made even less
sense despite being supplied with additional information. I wandered aimlessly around Section J (as denoted on a map of the grounds) to no avail. I passed the same headstones and plots over and over. None
of them read "WISTER" and none looked like the photo I had seen of Owen Wister's grave marker online. Dejected (again), we left.
Yesterday was another
gathering of the goth-leaning community at Laurel Hill. Yes sir! Another "The Market of the Macabre" was upon us. In addition to seeing what curiosities were available for purchase, I was determined — determined!
— to make this my final attempt at finding Owen Wister's burial plot. We arrived 90 minutes before the official opening of the craft fair, but since Laruen Hill is a public cemetery, we were welcomed to stroll the grounds. I made a beeline to Section J. At the near corner of the section, I found two young volunteers (so identified by their neon yellow vests emblazoned with VOLUNTEER on the back) fiddling with their cell phones. "Hi," I said as I approached them, "Is this Section J?" and I pointed just past where they were posted. One of them — the young lady — confirmed my inquiry and returned her attention to her phone. To her chagrin, I continued my questioning. "Do you know where Owen Wister's grave is?," I asked. On her phone, she guided me to a small section of the cemetery's website, unknown to me prior to our conversation. Here, she explained, is a GPS-driven database. Just enter the name of the person you are seeking and a directional map pops up to show you the way. (I used a similar feature at Mountain Grove Cemetery
in Bridgeport, Connecticut, while trying to find the grave of Marion Slaughter, the real name of country singer Vernon Dahlert.) I typed "Owen Wister" in the correct fields and, sure enough, a map with a route traced in blue and a dotted path leading to a pinpoint showed up on my phone's screen. I followed the computer-voiced directions happily... until I was informed that I had "reached my destination." The trouble was, I was still in the middle of the path that skirted the south edge of Section J... just a few feet from where I received the coordinates. I was right back where I started. But I was determined. I retraced the random path I walked through Section J back in September. I saw the Warner grave. I saw the other
graves I had seen before. I did not
, however, see any graves of the Wister
variety. I exited Section J and stood on the paved path, turning around and around, trying to spot a place that I had not searched before.
I spotted a small path, obscured by bushes, about 50 feet ahead and not looking at all
like it was part of Section J. I slipped past the bushes and was treated to a spectacular view of the Schuylkill River far below where I was standing. I was also treated to a spectacular view of Owen Wister's grave! I thought I heard a chorus of angelic voices offer a heraldic cry of victory. I swore the clouds above me parted and a single beam of golden light engulfed both me and the ancient marble headstone that stands to designate where Owen Wister's remains lie in eternal repose. I stood silently for a few minutes and took in the moment. I was Captain Ahab with a cellphone camera in my hand in place of a sharpened harpoon. Owen Wister's grave lay before me like the great Moby Dick, about to be photographed instead of pierced. I snapped a few pictures from a few different angles. I was soon joined by my son, who directed me to a spot behind the headstone, so he could compose and capture the moment as though I was a big-game hunter posing triumphantly with his long-sought prey.
I raised my arms and let out a loud "WOO-HOO!"
We bought tickets for the day's "Market of the Macabre," but I could have just as easily left right then and there..... satisfied.