Shannon Applegate, 'Living Among Headstones' Eight years ago, Shannon Applegate inherited a five-acre cemetery dating back to the pioneer era in western Oregon. The experience has led the historian and writer to pen a book, Living Among Headstones.
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Shannon Applegate, 'Living Among Headstones'

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Shannon Applegate, 'Living Among Headstones'

Shannon Applegate, 'Living Among Headstones'

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Eight years ago, Shannon Applegate found herself the owner of a small rural cemetery in Douglas County, Oregon. It's two hours from Eugene in a sparsely populated county of 5,000 square miles. With the land, Applegate inherited all the foibles and fractiousness of a small town. She's written about this in a new book called "Living Among Headstones." Shannon Applegate joined me from the grounds of the Applegate Pioneer Cemetery.

Ms. SHANNON APPLEGATE (Author, "Living Among Headstones"): The most prominent feature of our cemetery are these extraordinary old trees. Some of them are about 200 years old. There are port orchard cedars and incense cedars, huge madrones with very reddish trunks, just a lovely canopy of trees and a lot of birds. The feeling is of shadow and light. And the light just comes through these trees and illuminates the roads, and at other times, it feels a bit gloomy, and then at the edge it's just this lovely view looking out over hills and valleys.

LYDEN: Now are some of the older headstones in the cemetery kind of tipping over and...

Ms. APPLEGATE: There are a few, unfortunately. In the 1980s, a number of the stones in the cemetery were turned over by local boys. Some of those have been repaired in the interim. Our stones go back to the 1850s. And I'm going to walk towards a beautiful wrought-iron Victorian family plot, and inside this lovely wrought-iron fence, there is an old snowball bush with the snowball flowers just round and white, just bobbing a little bit in the wind as I'm walking towards it right now.

LYDEN: I think I can hear the birds calling behind you.

Ms. APPLEGATE: Well, it looks like--I think it's the ravens.

LYDEN: Oh, well, of course. It's a cemetery.

Ms. APPLEGATE: They're up there. They're caviling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. APPLEGATE: They're caviling in the treetops up here.

LYDEN: In your book, you talk about the description that one of your relatives or workers at the cemetery kept a couple of entries: `Stanley George Cutright(ph), 1941 to '51, 10 years old...'

Ms. APPLEGATE: Yes.

LYDEN: `...electrocuted when he climbed a tree and touched an electric line; Luther Dougherty(ph), house painter, plays a slide trombone in the town dance band; James Huntington, first of 13 children of Ben and Mary to die, a very devout Christian, never owned a car.' There's a novel in each of those little descriptions.

Ms. APPLEGATE: I know that the inspiration of cemeteries to writers like Eudora Welty and Edgar Lee Masters and, of course, "Our Town," Thornton Wilder's wonderful play--the stories are all under these stones, and it's almost irresistible. I think that's why people love old cemeteries.

LYDEN: It must have seemed romantic for you, Shannon, when you first took on this job. But as you write in the very beginning of your book, this is a job absolutely fraught with controversy if you find that the people disagree with you.

Ms. APPLEGATE: Yeah.

LYDEN: Well, you've wrote that you wanted to aesthetically improve it, and you also had an objection to plastic flowers, which had become sprinkled everywhere in the cemetery. Those brought you into conflict with a couple of the people who wanted to leave them.

Ms. APPLEGATE: Well, it isn't--you know, the industrial-strength colors of plastic flowers are something that I still cannot used to, although I'm much more tolerant, in many respects, having had this job for a while now. But there is nothing quite so depressing as a turquoise plastic rose in a mayonnaise jar covered with tin foil that's been left out in the Oregon weather.

But there were some other things, Jacki, that--like one day, I found plastic bags, such as sandwiches are stored in, that had football cards in it, left at the grave of a man that had the name `Grandpa' spelled in plastic letters over it. This kind of grave goods, these sort of ephemeral, very homemade things, are very poignant in a certain way, but also, of course, they're destroyed by the weather. So pretty soon there's just this awful, sort of sad look to everything.

LYDEN: Well, what happened when you tried to crack down on leaving these sorts of things?

Ms. APPLEGATE: Well, we had a cemetery cleanup at the very beginning of my career, and I had got into trouble almost immediately. A man called me on the telephone, a man I refer to as the `obscene telephone screamer' in the book, and was very angry and distressed that some things had been taken from his child's grave. It was a baby grave, and someone at the cleanup--I still don't know who--probably did pick up some of the plastic toys that had been left there. I don't think I would have done it, but I can't speak for the others who were there that day. He was very angry, but I tend to think of this differently as time went on.

LYDEN: You've had people come from all over as well, Shannon, to look at this. Tell us about one man who came looking for one of his lost ancestors and his reaction when he saw the cemetery.

Ms. APPLEGATE: I saw a man in a trailer, the type that people retire in and go traveling around, and he said that he had a sense that his--he had an unusual name. It was Westenheiser(ph), and he thought that perhaps there might be a Westenheiser in the cemetery. He came to the cemetery--and, actually, I'm standing right next to it, as luck would have it at the moment. It's the same place with this lovely wrought-iron gate. And he stood here, and he put his hand on this lovely gate and he looked inside so wistfully. And he said, `Is there room in there for me?' He told me that this was, really, rather a distant relative of his; it was no one that he'd known. The man, in fact, was from Texas. And I said, `Well, Mr. Westenheiser, I have to look at my records and see if there is space there.' Well, he did buy the plot, and he will come back here. And as he signed the check, he was so moved that he said--I don't think he'd mind my saying this if he's listening to me--that he began to cry just a little bit.

LYDEN: Hmm.

Ms. APPLEGATE: You know, people want to belong somewhere, and that, to me, is one of the more profound personal experiences about this in--you know, how rootless we are as a culture, how hard it is to have some little place, you know, that we come back to. But I know so many people that love old cemeteries and just come into them and look around and let their imaginations go and end up telling me often about some little cemetery--maybe in Colorado on their grandmother's place or, you know, someplace in Pennsylvania or Vermont--that every time they go back home, they search out and they stand there among the stones.

LYDEN: Shannon Applegate is the owner and sexton at Applegate Pioneer Cemetery in Yoncalla, Oregon.

Thanks for joining us.

Ms. APPLEGATE: Thank you so much, Jacki, for having me.

LYDEN: If you'd like to see pictures of the Applegate Pioneer Cemetery, go to our Web site at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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