Outdoors

A peaceful outdoor walking option

Leisure: Cemeteries off good, safe place to stretch your legs

Many cemeteries are open for walking. Oak Shade in Marion features rolling hills and calming presence. (Marion Patterson
Many cemeteries are open for walking. Oak Shade in Marion features rolling hills and calming presence. (Marion Patterson/correspondent)
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A year ago we looked forward to several 2020 trips.

We planned to hike and camp in Vermont’s Green Mountains before rambling through South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Coronavirus put a screeching halt to those plans. Fortunately, we found delightful places close to home to explore and learn about. All spring and summer we have visited intriguing and unusual close-to-home places. After the derecho cleanup, we resumed our day trip excursions.

In mid-November, we gazed down the Cedar River Valley from a high spot in St. John’s Cemetery on Cedar Rapids southeast side. We’d driven by the cemetery a thousand times, but had never stopped to walk through it. On a clear autumn day, we climbed the cemetery’s hill overlooking Van Vechten Park and the river. It was sad to see trees felled by the August derecho, but their loss opened an expansive view of the river.

It wasn’t quite a Green Mountain or Black Hills vista, but it was strikingly interesting and beautiful.

We began walking area cemeteries after coronavirus for exercise and variety, but before the derecho hit. Mostly we just wanted to explore new places to walk, and we found plenty.

Scan a map of Cedar Rapids and almost any other city and large blank areas appear. Many are parks, but some are cemeteries. Burial grounds in total, combined with parks and golf courses, create large blocks of open space in the midst of urbanized land. In rural areas, cemeteries often are sited on scenic places.

Some cemeteries are tiny, while others are big enough to challenge anyone to stretch their legs. Some are level. Many have steep slopes great for building leg muscles and getting the heart pounding.

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According to different cemetery staff, and for a variety of reasons, many cemeteries were established on high ground. Perhaps this put land not suitable for crops to use, or maybe the founders wanted to bury dead relatives in a place with delightful views. They always looked for places without many rocks so digging was easy.

No one is sure why some burial grounds were sited where they are. But walking these places gives people a chance to gaze at Iowa’s rolling hills, farm fields, distantly grazing livestock, traffic hustling by, rivers and even downtowns.

One of our favorite local walking places is Marion’s Oak Shade Cemetery. It’s owned and managed by the town.

“Many people go there to walk because it’s a pretty spot with steep slopes that give opportunities for striding up hillside roads,” said Marion City arborist Mike Cimprich. “The town keeps interior roads plowed so it’s a great winter walking location.”

Oak Shade’s trees were damaged by the derecho, but many big old ones survived. The town has cleared the roads and invites walkers.

The Czech National Cemetery and Cedar Memorial also welcome walkers, reminding them to be respectful of those buried there while enjoying brisk walks in quiet and low-traffic spaces. It, and St. John’s Cemeteries, feature pleasant views.

Cemeteries incubate curiosity. Brockman Cemetery, located in the midst of a modest neighborhood near the Mount Vernon Road Hy Vee, is an example. From the street, it looks like a city park, but it isn’t. Gravestones are absent. Only a small wooden sign identifies it as a cemetery. Apparently, a few early residents were buried there.

Marion, a native-born Yankee, grew up exploring pioneer cemeteries and rubbing stones to decipher the images and words. Although we started visiting cemeteries for exercise, we soon became intrigued by many of the other benefits they offer. These include scenic views, geology and natural and human history.

GEOLOGY

Many cemeteries, especially those in rural areas, were established on the high ground of knobs and low hills in rural and urban areas. Often, these cemeteries are small and don’t provide much opportunity for leg stretching walks. They do offer a quiet respite and delightful views of the countryside.

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When we need a brief driving break, we’ll sometimes stop in a rural cemetery to stretch, change drivers and take in peaceful scenes. One of our favorites is Pleasant Hill Cemetery south of Blairstown. It overlooks the rolling land near the Iowa River.

Headstones give clues to geology. Early graves in New England were carved mainly from dark slate or sandstone. In the Midwest, stones were usually hewed from local limestone. It’s an inexpensive and easy to work rock and may have been the only available material in early settlement days. It has a flaw. Slightly acidic raindrops gradually melt the rock, obscuring the name of the person buried below. In another century, or so, the entire stones may be dissolved.

Granite stones are much more weather durable but even they sometimes show the impact of the weather with cracks and chips. Nothing is truly immortal.

NATURAL HISTORY

In every cemetery we’ve visited we’ve spotted deer tracks and often observed where they have browsed their dinner from shrubs and trees.

Calvary Cemetery borders Indian Creek and gave us glimpses of goldfinches, juncos, cedar waxwings and often raptors soaring above. While there we once heard a barred owl calling from creekside woods and a belted kingfisher chattering near Indian Creek.

Most area cemeteries are decades old. Managers buried people but also planted trees. Many of them are now well over a century old and suffered greatly during the derecho’s power.

While many of these heritage trees tumbled to the ground, some survived and a number of younger ones are ready to take the place of the downed veterans. Cemeteries generally sport native tree species, but often they are great places to observe large non-native trees. For example, we’ve found big ginkgoes scattered among the oaks and maples.

HUMAN HISTORY

One day we were walking for exercise through Oak Hill Cemetery when history forced a pause.

We were in an area that revealed the great migration and immigration that created our state. A grave marked the place where a person born in Dingman’s Ferry, Pa., in the early 1800s died in Cedar Rapids years later. Other stones told similar tales of people born in New York, Connecticut or other states moving to what was then wild and lightly occupied Iowa.

Graves reveal past and present immigration, as well. We found graves of people born in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Scandinavia, Cyprus and countries in Africa. These immigrants have joined American migrants seeking a better life in Iowa than in places left behind. So many people moved to Iowa that it became a state in 1846.

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Many early residents were successful. Plentiful graves mark the resting place of people who led careers in business, government and nonprofit service. Their descendants are alive today and contributing to our communities.

Some less so. Iowa cemeteries include Potter fields, sometimes called Pauper fields. It’s where indigent people are buried. Years ago, former Cedar Rapids Parks Superintendent David Kramer supervised the Potter field at Oak Hill Cemetery.

“People were buried with a small concrete block that just had a number on it, not a name,” he said.

We walked to the Potter field and found no evidence of graves long obscured by time. But the spot has an aura of sadness of people who disappeared and are forgotten.

Other graves inspire thought and stir emotions. We found several places where newborn babies were buried. The heartbreak of their parents is palpable. Sometimes the mothers died in, or shortly after, childbirth as is the case with Marion’s paternal grandmother.

A veteran connection is strongly present and cuts across ethnicity and time. We often found graves with inscriptions proudly proclaiming the person buried there was a private in the Civil War, World War I or other conflicts. As a Vietnam Era veteran, Rich was humbled to find graves of people apparently killed in that conflict who returned home in body bags. It’s a graphic reminder of war’s cost and resulting sadness.

CULTURAL CHANGE

Headstones reveal cultural change over time.

Older stones of children often had a lamb on top signifying innocence. Two clasped hands recognize the continuity of life and death — from one form to another. The weeping willow, urn or Grecian statues come from the 1800s Greek Revival period. Some stones feature quotes. More recently carved headstones reveal loved ones’ interests, like a sport, activity, pet and long marriage.

Walkers can see a ball and bat, music, dog and interlocking wedding bands carved into memorial stones.

CONNECTIONS

On one walk, we visited briefly with a young man who regularly walks the Oak Shade Cemetery. Looking around, he said cemeteries are like mini-cities where we can learn a lot. He talks to the people buried there.

“It may sound strange, but it helps me remember people long dead,” he said.

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In fact, by visiting cemeteries we do honor the dead much like the Hispanic tradition of Día de los Muertos. The 2017 animated movie “Coco” gives insight many cultures have about honoring the dead.

“Our memories, they have to be passed down by those who knew us in life — in the stories they tell about us.”

Without the memories and stories we pass on, the movie Coco reminds us, “He’s been forgotten. When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”

Walking in cemeteries stirs emotions. These large areas offer exercise, wildlife, history and sometimes gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside.

CEMETERY PROTOCOL

— Check with the cemetery to be sure they allow walking this winter. (Oak Hill is closed at this time for derecho cleanup.)

— Stay on roads for optimal exercise.

— Be aware of ice.

— Walk among stones carefully and respectfully.

— Check to see if pets are allowed.

— Leave all decorations alone.

Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.