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When the Gravestone Speaks Who Listens?

A cemetery tour guide digs into Michael Griffith’s The Speaking Stone: Stories Cemeteries Tell.

The Speaking Stone: Stories Cemeteries Tell
Michael Griffith
University of Cincinnati Press
April 2021

The Speaking Stone: Stories Cemeteries Tell is a collection of non-fiction essays inspired by its author Michael Griffith’s daily walks in Cincinnati’s historic Spring Grove Cemetery. Each chapter takes a deep dive into the life of one or more of the people whose gravesites Griffith randomly encountered during his constitutionals at sprawling (733 acres) Spring Grove. Griffith effectively (though self-consciously) weaves autobiography into The Speaking Stone and peppers the book with pop culture references that are relevant and often funny.

Griffith is a Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and was the founding editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original series from Louisiana State University Press. The entirety of Griffith’s last novel, 2011’s Trophy, takes place at the moment its protagonist is being crushed to death by an enormous stuffed grizzly bear.

Griffith’s Spring Grove strolls began as he was seeking relief from the writer’s block that beset him while working on a book about an obituary writer who decides to avenge the recently deceased for wrongs committed against them during their lives. Spring Grove was less than a mile from Griffith’s home and he thought his excursions might get the novel back on track.

Instead, Griffith was thrown into the path of The Speaking Stone.

Griffith scores right away with the book’s title and subtitle. Gravestones do speak, and cemeteries tell stories that rival the best fiction. Trust me, I have experience with speaking stones and cemetery stories.  

As a volunteer cemetery tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, I have learned that even a broken, worn gravestone can, with some decent detective work, tell amazing stories from the life that once inhabited the bones lying beneath the stone. For example, making out the remains of the word “impresario” on the beaten-up monument to Edward Fry led me to bring to light the connection between Fry and the notorious Astor Place riot that happened in New York City on 10 May 1849. Fry was the self-styled “impresario” of the Astor Opera House, site of the riot, which was instigated, in part, by the rivalry of two Shakespearean actors. Indeed, every gravestone holds a story and Griffith instinctively understands this.

In the introductory chapter, “A State of Ungress: Composing as Rambling” (“We are poor, forked animals who live most of our lives, and thank God, in a state of ungress, regress, circumgress.”) Griffith reveals his longtime fascination with obituaries, noting that “They’re the only kind of story in the newspaper–in the whole hot-take mediasphere for that matter–that features a completed arc, with beginning and end, rather than being a chaotic dispatch from the middle of things.”

Griffith goes on to draw connections between the obituaries that appeared on a single day in the New York Times and then notes that what he likes the best about these stories is not the plot elements but, “the pungent oddities that peek up between and around them: quotations, anecdotes, details offered as synecdoches for a whole life.” Griffith’s philosophy on obituary writing clearly guided his approach to The Speaking Stone.

Griffith’s daily walks became lengthy rambles, during which he’d randomly encounter intriguing tombstones or enticing epitaphs. He’d find himself tapping away at his phone to conduct preliminary research on the people beneath the stones, then continuing his research once he got home. Eventually, Griffith realized that, no matter what was to become of the renegade obituarist novel, he was now writing a completely different book.

This method strikes a chord with me, as a cemetery tour guide. I have often found myself wandering through Laurel Hill, drawn to certain monuments. Take that of Augustus Goodyear Heaton, for example. Heaton was a well-known painter, author, and noted numismatist (coin collector). Though not huge, I was drawn to his monument for purely aesthetic reasons and began to Google him. Though his fame has largely faded, even among numismatists, Heaton has proven to be a favorite stop on my tours.

The tales of the people that Griffith has assembled for The Speaking Stone seem rather like A.G. Heaton’s story: famous, or at least relatively well-known in their day, for a specific, often quirky reason, but hardly household names. These people include, but are not limited to:

  • Leon Van Loo, a pioneering photographer, who assured friends that if it were possible, he’d make himself known at a post-mortem memorial dinner he provided for in his will. Spoiler alert: Van Loo was a no-show.
  • Ernst Huenefeld, inventor of the first full-size glass door oven.
  • Frances “Fanny” Wright, a Scottish-born writer and lecturer who advocated for emancipation of slaves, birth control, and sexual freedom; she also founded the utopian Nashoba Compound in 1825.
  • Gus Holthaus, outdoor advertising painter, whose works can now be seen as “ghost signs”.
  • Plus, a brief glimpse at 15 of the more than 60 men named “Charles Miller” who are buried at Spring Grove.

Each essay focuses on biographical elements of its subjects, but Griffith uses the book’s format to contemplate other relevant topics, from advertising to political/social activism, from grave robbery to public art. Such a range of topics is typical on a cemetery tour. I recently touched on numismatics, opera, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, selfies, ventriloquism, shark attacks, and Celebrity Password Plus during a two-hour tour–so seeing such variety in a book that’s rooted in gravestones feels right.

Griffith occasionally semi-apologizes for inserting bits and pieces of his own life into these essays but based on my experience, the autobiographical bits are appropriate. Again, consider A.G. Heaton. Among his other accomplishments, Heaton wrote light-verse poetry. One of his poems, “The Amorous Numismatist”, is about the titular character attempting to impress a beautiful woman with his coin collection. Quite coincidentally, when I was 14 years old and decades away from my first encounter with Heaton, I wrote a poem called “Philatelic Love: Baby, I’m Hinged on You”, in which a stamp collector tries to impress a beautiful woman with his collection.

Am I going to pretend this weird coincidence between Heaton and me doesn’t exist when my tours stop at his gravesite? Hell, no! And nor should Griffith, though generally, his autobiographical touches are not nearly as frivolous as mine and Heaton’s. In fact, Griffith’s account of the year that he was classmates with Edmund Perry, murdered a few years later by an undercover policeman in New York City, is the most sobering section of The Speaking Stone.

While The Speaking Stone is deeply researched and written, Griffith has some fun with his work as well, chiefly by throwing pop culture references into the mix. At one point, he notes, “the preceding paragraph has essentially the same narrative as the video for Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, in which we see the hard-working hair band post-concert, drained. They may have seen a million faces and rocked them all, but there is always a tomorrow, containing more faces to be rocked.”

Griffith also aptly compares a sculpture being placed on a huge pedestal to the Stonehenge monument in Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and is correct when he notes that readers of his generation are likely to have first heard of the Odd Fellows fraternal group through the R.E.M. song, “Oddfellows Local 151”.

Griffith and I were apparently born within about a month of each other, and I know for certain that R.E.M. is where I first heard of the Odd Fellows. Griffith doesn’t overplay the pop-culture card but uses it just enough to keep readers wondering when Vanilla Ice might fall into the story somehow.

While The Speaking Stone might be too quirky to scale the best-seller lists, one hopes that the book will find the audience–cemetery ramblers, tour guides, quirky history fans, connoisseurs of Cincinnati lore, and lovers of synchronistic encounters, among others–that will love it.