Frick assistant curator speaks at Whitehall Public Library on 'buried art and history'

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When speaking about cemeteries, Laura Ainsley inevitably hears the question: Are they haunted?

"I'm sure some people have their stories," she said Tuesday night at Whitehall Public Library.

Her cemetery stories focus more on facts, but they're no less fascinating than spooky legends.

Ms. Ainsley presented "Cemetery Tales: Pittsburgh's Buried Art and History" at the invitation of Debby Rampolla, the library's adult services coordinator.

"I wanted to have a nice Halloween program for the library, but something that was really educational," Ms. Rampolla said.

The audience of about 30 was treated to an informative lesson from Ms. Ainsley, who is assistant curator of education, adult programs, for the Frick Art and Historical Center.

"They help us to understand the way we think about life and death at different points in history," she said of cemeteries. "They can be very telling for us."

For example, she showed photographs of gravestones from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which tend to display a variety of symbols and Latin phrases as reminders of the era's relatively high mortality rate.

At the time of this nation's founding, many cemeteries were located in the middle of emerging cities. In Pittsburgh, a prime example is at Trinity Cathedral on Sixth Avenue, which actually served as a burial ground for American Indians prior to its use for casualties of the French and Indian Wars.

By the mid-1800s, though, cemeteries started moving into suburban and rural areas, becoming the parklike settings that are familiar today. Part of the reason had to do with the growth of cities and the resulting lack of space for graves.

"There was also a concern for miasmas, or 'fogs' that would rise from dead bodies and cause people to become ill," Ms. Ainsley said about suppositions of the period.

In any event, the attitude toward people's final resting places changed around the same time. For example, the words "cemetery," based on Greek for "sleeping place," and "casket," derived from French for "jewelry box," started to replace traditional terms such as "burial ground" and "tomb."

In 1845, Allegheny Cemetery was established in then-suburban Lawrenceville on 300 acres where more than 100,000 people now are memorialized. From the beginning, it emphasized the shift toward cemeteries more closely resembling parks.

"It has multiple ponds and woods, deep ravines and lots of places to walk," Ms. Ainsley said. "What you see isn't just something that happened. It was meant to be an escape from the city and a place where people could visit."

In fact, Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned as a designer of New York's Central Park, was commissioned to redesign Allegheny Cemetery at the turn of the 20th century.

"In addition to natural beauty, Pittsburgh cemeteries have a lot of artistic beauty, too," Ms. Ainsley said as she showed photographs of some of the intricate pieces of art at the cemetery, including sculptures by renowned artists placed at various memorials.

A stunning example is an angel sculpted by Henry Kirke Brown, one of the earliest bronze sculptures from an American foundry, at the grave of a man named George Hogg.

Among the better-known people buried at Allegheny are Stephen Foster, Lillian Russell and baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson.

Pittsburgh's Homewood Cemetery serves as the final resting place for members of the Frick and Heinz families, and the Clarks of candy bar fame. Others buried there include football coach John Bain "Jock" Sutherland, musician Erroll Garner and Perle Mesta, a friend of the Kennedys who once was known as the "hostess with the mostess."

Ms. Ainsley wrapped up her presentation by encouraging those in attendance to visit cemeteries for a closer look.

"This is perfect cemetery weather. Go out, take a walk and learn more about the history around you," she said.

Harry Funk, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com


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