Museum director hosts an entertaining look at tombstones

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

When on the road, John Mark Lambertson’s map is riddled with unusual pit stops; ones that evoke dread among more typical folk.

“I’ve been into (cemetery) monuments since I was very, very small,” said Lambertson, director of the National Frontier Trails Museum. “I’ll go anywhere in the world to check them out.”

Lambertson is hosting a series of lectures called “Tombstone Talks” 7 p.m. every Thursday night in October at the museum, 318 W. Pacific Ave. in Independence.

Lambertson grew up in a household in eastern Iowa inclined toward history. Both parents studied it religiously and would take Lambertson and his sister on long walks that would snake past rural cemeteries.

The fear that crept into other young boys and girls when near a cemetery never visited Lambertson. He was smitten by tombstones, which he always viewed as a personal reminder of a life now passed.

“I never found them to be scary,” Lambertson said. “At least I don’t remember them being scary.”

When he was 11, Lambertson embarked on a family history project that took him to several cemeteries. Once finished, Lambertson knew his interest in tombstones would never be relinquished.

“It was the art of these tombstones that primarily caught my attention,” Lambertson said. “There’s such a huge breadth of possibilities for design, inscriptions and epitaphs.”

After three decades, in which he’s visited all 50 states and 60 countries over six continents, Lambertson has amassed an amalgamation of stories and photographs he’s willing to share.

“Actually, I’m anxious to share,” Lambertson said.

The first lecture on Thursday dealt with tombstone art, decoration and symbolism. The next four lectures, in order, will be themed as follows: “Glorious Monuments: America’s Golden Age of Tombstone Art,” “Chiseled History: Curious, Informative and Humorous Tombstones,” “Gone But Not Forgotten: Tombstones of the Famous and Infamous” and “Pyramids, Crosses and Shrines: Tombstoning Around the World.”

“Glorious Monuments” will explore the late 19th century, a bountiful era of grand statues and mausoleums. It will also look at the recent revival of the fantastical in tombstones, such as the recreation of a train in memory of a conductor or a husband/wife burial plot marked by a sculptural recreation of a Texaco station, of which they were co-owners in life.

“Chiseled History” takes a look at tombstone inscriptions. Sometimes a message left behind can be humorous – one reads “22 June Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune” – or politically adhesive; according to Lambertson, one Independence family plot said each of its members lived their whole life in Independence – and never once voted for either Roosevelt or Truman.

“Gone But Not Forgotten” studies the grave markers of American presidents and political leaders, explorers, inventors, film stars, musicians and Western heroes. Jesse James’ grave in Kearney speaks to the rebel’s wartime experience, serving under the likes of Fletch Taylor and William Quantrill (spelled Quantrell on James’ tombstone).

“Pyramids, Crosses and Shrines” ventures abroad, revealing how the idiosyncrasies of other cultures affect burial practices and the monuments meant to remember those who have died.

For more information, please call 816-325-7575.

The Examiner