Torchlike smug pots blaze on the steps of the mausoleums at Mount Mora Cemetery, their bright orange flames lighting faces of travelers otherwise shrouded in darkness. Costumed re-enactors await on the steps near the fires, ready to share stories of the people buried in these final resting places made of limestone and marble.
In doing so, they help us realize how one person can affect the world — even if no one outside St. Joseph, Missouri, knows her name.
This Missouri River town stands 55 miles north of Kansas City, and its annual "Voices of the Past" tour at Mount Mora Cemetery isn’t about ghosts or hauntings or how people died. It’s an unusual way to stoke a little local pride and remind us that no matter what our circumstances are, we can make a difference.
Tickets sell fast for the tours, which take place this week, and the hourlong experiences aren’t exactly easy to navigate for people with a disabling illness. Remember those big, deep school bus steps? Able-bodied people climb up them (so did I, with the help of a friend who pushed me) and travel as a group to the cemetery. (For those of us needing walkers or wheels, you can drive your car to the cemetery and meet the tour group there.) And once you’re inside Mount Mora’s gates, you’ll need the Flashlight app on your phone and the arm of a willing companion. The blacktop that stretches from the cemetery gates to the top of Mausoleums Row has its fair share of little hills and hollers, which feels just right here in Missouri but poses a fall risk for those of us already unsteady on our feet. Even standing and listening on the blacktop’s gradual incline eats away at my stamina.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The darkness. The fire. The locked gates. The lively history lessons. Even a song at the end. I’ve forgotten about the embarrassment that came with the school bus push and immersed myself in St. Jo history.
The program changes every year. During my visit last fall, the crisp autumn air enveloped us as we learned about Katherine K. Davis, a musician and composer who wrote the Christmas carol “The Little Drummer Boy” in 1941, and about Chris Rutt, who co-created what would become the world’s first pancake mix in 1888.
Opened in 1851 and on the National Register of Historic Places, Mount Mora is hardly the only cemetery to offer tours. Cleveland’s beautiful Lake View Cemetery; Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York; Graceland Cemetery in Chicago; and St. Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans are just a handful of the storied — and historic — places to explore with a guide’s help. Navigating these hallowed grounds requires care and caution for people with disabilities. But it’s totally doable, and an entertaining, provocative way to spend an autumn evening. So check out a historic cemetery near you. Even if you’ve lived in the same town your whole life, you’ll come away learning something new, and the subtle scent of fall leaves will cling to your clothes.
*Photo Credit: St. Joseph Museum