Appreciating the beauty of Holy Cross Cemetery

In the beginning of the spring semester for my Western Tradition 2 class with Mr. Derek Maxfield we were given three vastly different options for a service learning project. I remember thinking, what the heck is service learning? I had never been required to do something like that before. To be honest, none of the options jumped out at me as something that I would particularly want to do, so I decided to put off the inevitable. However, throughout the semester as I thought about each option, I was able to appreciate how different each was, and was able to see that they each would be attractive to particular people. Different students with different personalities and likes/dislikes would be able to either volunteer in a museum, interview war veterans, or photograph cemetery tombstones to aid Mr. Maxfield in a project he was working on. I kind of reluctantly picked the third options thinking, why couldn’t Mr. Maxfield be doing a project on birds or butterflies? Why did it have to be tombstones? Like I said, I put off the project because it was something I decided was interesting (in theory), but why did I have to actually go do it? Well, in late April I finally made the 30 minute drive to the Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna (south of Buffalo) NY. It is one of many cemeteries included in the Catholic Cemeteries Diocese of Buffalo. ‘Holy Cross Cemetery was officially opened in 1849 as a parish cemetery, although records show burials dating as far back as 1830. Holy Cross Cemetery is the largest of the Catholic cemeteries consisting of approximately 191 acres. There are over 130,000 interments in this cemetery with approximately 60 acres of undeveloped land for future cemetery use.’

Planning my trip and driving there gave me a sense of nervousness as I remember being scared of being in a huge, strange cemetery all by myself. However, as I pulled through the main gates I was hardly the only one there. Many gardeners and lawn keepers were planting, mowing and maintaining the land. Various people were walking around looking at or visiting tombstones, while even more were driving around. It even seemed like some tours were going on, and I was pleasantly surprised. I pulled into the pretty main office, and asked a very nice woman where I could go to find the tombstones I required with a death date between 1800 and 1920. She was able to answer me immediately, and circled about 20 different sections on the map labeled with different letters of the alphabet. I chose one to start with, with the letter of my last name, and then tried to decipher the map. As I drove I really got to see the beauty of the cemetery, and how large it really was.

As I began to take pictures I worried if I was doing it right, or if it was what Mr. Maxfield wanted for his project, but as I continued to take pictures I got into a consistent rhythm, and became very comfortable with it. As I relaxed I would wave to people walking, jogging, or driving by, and enjoyed the nice weather. I also began to notice similarities between many of the tombstones. Many were tall, well built, with the last name of the person engraved largely on the bottom with a cross on the top, many with a circle with the letters ‘Ihs’ inside reoccurring as a symbol.

I also remember wanting to only take pictures of the big, beautiful, ornate headstones, and there were many to choose from, but I also took an array of smaller, more quaint headstones as well, and I enjoyed every minute of it. All of the different types of headstones intrigued me as I began to look past the names engraved or the style of headstone, and began to think about who they were, and the life they lived. It was such an interesting experience as I found myself making excuses to take more than 500 pictures. I remember thinking, if I only take 500 he might not be able to upload certain ones, some may not be what he wants, I better take more. Finally, I stopped myself, and after only surveying 2 different sections I had almost 700 pictures.

I really do hope that my work aids Mr. Maxfield in his project, and I am very glad that my first experience doing a service learning project was a great one. Strangely, it was on option that I put off, and kind of fell into doing, but it turned out to be the right one for me. I also can’t help but share one of my last thoughts as I left the cemetery feeling pleasantly surprised and accomplished, and laughing to myself; maybe someone will be photographing my tombstone one day.

By Maureen O’Donnell

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About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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