Cemeteries are a good place to find ideas for stories, and Michigan has its fair share of fairly old ones. This week, I spent some time at Oakwood Cemetery, which is near downtown Farmington. It’s a beautiful piece of land, dotted with old trees, less than a mile from the main street of Farmington, MI. There are gravestones from the turn of the twentieth century.
I’ve been looking at the cemetery for over a year, every time I went past, but I never had time to look at it more closely. On Memorial Day I finally decided to take the time to look at it. From the outside of the gates, the cemetery looks very small but going inside I found that it was a little bit larger. It is still small compared to many more modern cemeteries.
Wandering around among the trees, looking at the gravestones in this cemetery from before the turn of the 20th century, I found a lot of very interesting names.
For instance, Anne C. D. Soop. What sort of a name is Soop? What country does it come from? What do the initials ‘C’ and ‘D’ stand for? She was sixty when she died, a somewhat reasonable age to die in 1939, but what did she die of? Who was left to mourn her? Was she married? Did she have children?
I could easily find out the answers to most—if not all—of these questions. If I wanted to write an essay about the early years of the Farmington community, I would not have much trouble with the start this gravestone gave me. But I do not often write nonfiction. What I will do is to answer these questions for myself, building up an image in my mind of the sort of person who was Anne C. D. Soop. I might find out what sort of name Soop is and what country it would come from—I think it is likely to be Dutch, since Dutch uses doubled verbs more often than other languages.
Then there is this stone, next to Anne Soop’s stone, but the last name on this one is spelled ‘Shoop’. That makes me wonder if one of those names was misspelled. Or maybe they came over at different times, and the customs people spelled their names differently.
These two stones—of a brother and sister, perhaps—have the signs of the Masons on them. The Masons were very big in this area during the first part of the Twentieth Century. I don’t know much about the Masons, except that they were supposed to hold secret rites. Because a lot of people don't know much about the Masons, they are a popular subject for fiction. I don't think I'll be using them, but you never know--maybe the Masons were originally founded to fight against wizards?
This stone poses different questions. Arminta was clearly a well-loved child—as evidenced by the large stone her parents erected for her—so she couldn’t have died of neglect. Was she killed in an accident? Or perhaps she contracted a childhood illness. I’m not sure when penicillin was discovered, perhaps she died of an illness that would have been cured with antibiotics today.
So this is one of the ways I might get my ideas: by imagining what the people whose lives are recorded here might have been like, where they come from, what they did and how they died. Ideas are all around us, all the time. It just takes imagination to find them.