Grave Matters

Rand Carlson

After seeing Saving Private Ryan, hundreds of moviegoers traveled across the Atlantic to visit Normandy's American Cemetery and Memorial. They expected to see the grave of Captain John Miller, the character played in the film by Tom Hanks. But Miller's remains weren't there, they were told; Hollywood had made him up. Still, director Steven Spielberg's fictional depiction of the allied invasion of France was based on some truth: It was actually Army Chaplain Francis L. Sampson who parachuted into the combat zone to bring Fritz Niland, a.k.a. Private James Ryan, home to his mother. When Sampson died in 1996, he was interred in his family's plot, in Minnesota.

"I don't think people know he's here," says Father Paul Heiting, of St. Catherine Catholic church in Luverne, a small town about four hours southwest of the Twin Cities. Those wishing to see Sampson's grave can make the drive or, perhaps more conveniently, view a picture of it online at

The Find a Grave Web site, started in 1995 by Jim Tipton, who lives in Utah, contains images from hundreds of final resting places around the world. Tipton says he created the site--which includes dozens of Minnesotans--because he has "always enjoyed the aesthetics of cemeteries." While living in London in the early 1990s, he frequented Karl Marx's burial spot in Highgate Cemetery. When Tipton returned to the States, the Web was just taking off; he surfed around for a site featuring the final resting places of famous dead folks. "I didn't find one," Tipton recalls, "so I built it."

Anyone is welcome to send in information and photos. Tipton says he tries to post most of what he gets, but for now Find A Grave keeps track only of the deceased who are "famous," a term he applies loosely enough to include the likes of Don, the faithful horse of William R. Marshall, the civil war hero who went on to become Minnesota's fifth governor. Don died in 1886 at the age of 29 and is buried at Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville.

As for humans interred around the state, the site includes artists, sports figures, writers, actors, politicians, and all manner of people who've made local history. Hugh Beaumont, well-known for his role as Ward Cleaver on the television show "Leave It to Beaver," is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in St. Paul. Poet John Berryman, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965 and jumped off a bridge near the University of Minnesota in 1972, is buried at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights. Writer Sinclair Lewis's grave can be found at Greenwood Cemetery in Sauk Centre. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, the three black men who were lynched in 1920 in Duluth, were laid to rest in that city's Park Hill Cemetery.

Heather Sandkuhler, who works the front desk at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, says most tourists who come seeking famous plots ask for the locations of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and entertainer Tiny Tim, né Herbert Khaury, both of which are featured on Tipton's Web site. On the site, Tiny Tim's entry is prefaced by a warning that the accompanying photographs may not be "suitable for those who are easily disturbed." The shots, taken at the entertainer's very public funeral, show him lying in his casket with his celebrated ukulele on his chest.

"Tiny would have loved it," says Miss Sue, his widow. During his long illness, she recalls, Tiny Tim planned to mail out prank Christmas cards featuring him in a coffin. "Then when you opened it," she explains, "there would be another picture of him sitting up and waving. It would have read, 'Merry Christmas! I'm not dead yet!' Luckily we did not send it out, as it would not only have been in poor taste, but as it turns out, it would also have been untrue."

Those who prefer sports to ukuleles can visit the graves of homegrown athletes including Russell "Buzz" Arlett, who hit four home runs in a single game twice in one season; Bill Goldsworthy, of Minnesota North Stars hockey fame; Spencer Harris, the all-time minor league leader in hits; and Francis "Pug" Lund and Bobby Marshall, of the College Football Hall of Fame. In Section 27 of Lakewood Cemetery, a prepaid plot awaits Twins owner Carl Pohlad (1915-).

The online picture of the Pohlad family headstone was taken by Stew Thornley, a Roseville-based historian and writer who has contributed nearly 300 photos to Thornley likes to spend his time traveling to the graves of baseball Hall of Famers, presidents, and Civil War generals. Over the years he's come across all sorts of offerings left by pilgrims: scrawled homages, memorabilia, baseballs. (Once, on a visit to the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., he noticed that "someone had left a fuchsia bra and panties on J. Edgar Hoover's grave.")

At Lakewood, hundreds of holiday wreaths, gone brown and brittle with age, adorn the plots on their spindly metal supports. The gravestones are hard to read, half buried as they are in new snow. A good stretch from the wrought-iron entry gates, in section 11, lot 1072, Callum L. deVellier is dancing. He and his partner seem caught in mid-swirl as their finely etched figures contrast with the red granite headstone that serves as their ballroom. "World Champion Marathon Dancer 3780 Continuous Hours," the epitaph says. At the Find A Grave site it is spring where they are but even in this cold, their steps still look joyful.

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