Searching for my ancestors in Forest Hill Cemetery
A lot of people have asked me to preside over their funeral. They usually pop the question about a year into our relationship, when I’ve been worn down to the sort of loyalty that compels careful documentation of their requests (a note in my phone titled “friend funerals”). This has happened frequently enough, unprompted, for me to identify with it in a way, as if making sure my friends go out in the manner they desire is some spiritual duty I was chosen for way, way back. I mean, how else do I explain such a macabre pattern to myself?
Don’t get me wrong, I take it very seriously. Derek wants the full 15 minutes of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” as his urn of ashes is slowly wheeled up to the front. My roommate has requested Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” while her brothers process with her soaring coffin, each one assigned specific lines to perform throughout (A.J. gets “cocaine for breakfast, yikes”). An individual whose identity I must protect has this vision where their cremated remains are served to their extended family in a lavish seven-course meal, the end of which features me delivering a speech revealing what (or, more specifically, who) has been eaten. Nicoletta simply wants to be mauled by a hellhound, no fuss about it. That one’s a little complicated because I’m not exactly sure how to gather the resources, but lord knows I would walk 500 miles and 500 more to secure some Cerberus for that queen.
My cousin Sarah thinks it’s the darndest thing, that it’s more complimentary than being asked to do something totally normal and fun with my friends while they are, say, alive.
“It’s such a testament to your character!” she told me, totally stoked, sipping Pét-Nat around an October fire in Northern Virginia. “These people are looking at you like, ‘Oh that chick? I can trust her with my death.’” Pretty metal. Verity Sturm: Funeral planner.
This is a long way of explaining why I wasn’t all that surprised when my editor, Clara Scott, told me I would be the “perfect person” to write about the cemetery for her B-side. To be honest, I had a lot to do that week, the temps were looking like a soft 50 below zero, but hey. It wasn’t even a question, because this is the line of work I’ve been chosen for. Duty calls.
That being said, I wasn’t about to die walking around the cemetery next to Markley in a polar vortex. It’s just not the end I’ve envisioned for myself. Instead, I dealt with the extreme weather by fleeing the state like a responsible adult. By the time I returned it was sunny and 40, yes, but this deadline was looming and I had squat. I sauced onto the cemetery’s website in a jiffy and started dicking around, looking for something, anything.
The Forest Hill Cemetery describes itself as “an unfinished landscape that welcomes all,” the private, non-profit brainchild of a 1857 collab between some University of Michigan profs and “a group of leading Ann Arbor businessmen.” Synergy, baby. She buries the dead. The cemetery’s design emulates the “rustic and rural cemetery tradition” popularized in 19th-century France, notable for its rolling expanse of land, abundance of trees and displacement from town and churchyard.
18,000 people are buried at Forest Hill, but there’s room for 8,000 more, although prices range from a modest 835 dollar cremorial unit to that skinny 3145 dollar glass-front middle-row spot in the coveted Columbarium. The hellhound would probably be cheaper, but investment in Forest Hill secures your remains in exciting proximity to those of local celebs like John Allen, founder of Ann Arbor, and the popular spiritual guru Bo Schembechler.
Forest Hill Cemetery boasts a sparse Facebook account (not a page — a full-on user account), 65 gothic acres and 4.7 stars on Google. Most importantly, its website features a robust database of historical information on those buried there (leave it to a University cemetery to incorporate data frames into their business, some undergrad is totally getting whipped to parse that shit, RIP my dude). Anywho, if you scroll down the bottom of the “Internment” page, you’ll run into a regal little search bar, all burgundy and warm gray and curly serifs inviting you to just type in your own name and see what happens (excellent UX). I’m always looking out for the Sturms of this world, so before I even realized what I was doing, my surname appeared in the bar and I was smashing that “search” button.
Lo and behold, there are Sturms buried in Forest Hill. Two, to be exact: Henry and Carl. My own kith and kin? Next to Markley? Spooky. I immediately shot an inquiry to the unique void that is the parent group chat, demanding intel on a Carl or Henry in the family tree. My parents, god love them, were wholly unhelpful. My mother responded immediately with the robotically urgent question-statement “ARE YOU IN CEMETERY.” My father took a more nostalgic approach, reminding me that “We are from Pfaffenhoefen (German flag emoji) near Augsburg and Munich. Fun loving Bavarians!” Thanks guys. The unique void never fails to be uniquely voidy. It looked like this fun-loving Bavarian was taking matters into her own hands.
This is how I spent Sunday morning pacing about Forest Hill Cemetery in the sun and mud, hungover as hell, searching for my ancestors.
I can see how Forest Hill would be an interesting, sexy area to wander around for the sake of wandering. It’s not a particularly happening spot on campus, so the whole place is softened with a silence that grows thicker as you move through the first few rows of crumbling graves and into the acres and acres of dead beyond. And winter looks good on the dead: The contrast between stone and snow, light and dark, brings sinuous attention to the curve and corner of every tombstone, monument and oak. By Sunday, the melting snow had collected into massive pools of still water that snaked around entire family plots like moats, protecting them from the scrutiny of people like me. I was a minute visitor in a massive, permanent place: I felt powerless, alone and good.
But the thing is, I wasn’t really wandering. I was looking for Sturms. And let me tell you, Forest Hill is a hard place to navigate if you’ve got an agenda. There’s a map online, sure, but it kind of resembles a Matisse cut-out (when I asked my roommate what she thought it was, she told me “fish, parrot or crab”). The database told me that Henry and Carl were buried in plot 82, but the plots progress in an order far from numeric and aren’t physically labeled on site. Forty minutes into my expedition, I was frustrated, lost and nauseous to boot. I had a meeting in half an hour, I had a hangover and I had a lot of doubt. 65 acres of mind-numbing tombstones studded out in every direction. I needed a sign.
As if on cue, I registered a sort of skidding sound in the distance, surprising me out of my solitary funk. And then a woman fell from the sky — one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, honestly, crashing into the snow in a melee of curly hair and plaid. My jaw dropped. I was so lost in the sauce I thought someone had sent me an angel or a demon or something, but then the context arrived: A longboard, late, trailing in after her (the skidding noise) and a man on his board, also beautiful. He helped her up, they gave me an awkward, beautiful acknowledgement, and skated on by. I was too stunned and nervous to photograph them, so I took a picture of the impression her wipeout made in the snow. It felt spiritual.
While taking that arguably creepy shot, though, I accidentally paid extra-special attention to the family of graves she crashed on, “Hawkes,” and realized that I could orient myself in Forest Hill by looking up the surrounding graves on their database right then and there. My phone told me the Hawkeses were buried in plot 75 and boom, I kind of had a loose idea of where I was. In a series of searches, the Kau, Buzzo and Loomis families all helped me move closer and closer to plot 82, and then I found them.
Carl and Henry were tucked side by side as expected, but there was a surprise to the left: Wilhelmina, held at an awkward grave’s length away, another Sturm that somehow didn’t make the database. How scandalous! While photographing their wonderfully austere, bevel-block gravestones, though, I realized that these were Sturmses, not Sturms. Indeed, while my surname is singular, theirs was plural: “Sturms.” The heck? How wrong could the database be? How much can we trust … data?
I left Forest Hill a little miffed by the inconsistencies; that is, determined to resolve them. A free ancestry.com trial later, I had some answers. Carl, originally Johann Joachim Hartwig, was born in Mecklenburg, Germany in 1823. He fell for a certain Wilhelmina (“Minnie”) in 1856, and the two came to the United States in 1863, where they settled in Ann Arbor and had five kids. Carl lived to a solid 71 and Minnie a goddamn impressive 91 (she died in 1918!), but their only son, Henry L., passed away tragically at the age of 31 before marrying or siring children of his own. All the dates lined up exactly — these had to be the people I found in Forest Hill.
Everything I read, though, recorded their surname as “Sturm” — singular, like mine. Why their gravestones spell “Sturms,” then, remains a mystery, not to mention Minnie’s unexplained exclusion from the Forest Hill database. And why is Minnie buried at a distance from her husband and son? And how the heck did they get “Carl” from “Johann Joachim Hartwig?” Something’s fishy here, that’s for sure. But I don’t have the time to figure out exactly what, that is also definitely for sure. Not now, at least.
One thing is for certain: I don’t think these people are technically related to me. I’ve never heard of a Carl/Johann or Minnie/Wilhelmina in my Sturm ancestry, and Henry died before he could even pass it on, anyway. My dad’s text about Pfaffenhoefen actually came in handy when I pulled up a map to see if Mecklenburg was close enough to continue entertaining the notion. Turns out it’s on the literal opposite side of the country, those Sturms are absolute north while my clan hails from the southiest south. Unless the Sturms somehow spawned across the entire nation, it’s not looking likely. So it goes.
Genetics aside, I feel like I’m related to these Sturms. I have tracked them down, visited their grave and learned their history. And I’m caught up in their mysterious forces — the flying woman who eventually led me to them, the little mysteries in the details of their burial. They’re haunting me, taking on new life in my vulnerable, adjective-laden brain: The displaced and introspective Carl, his fiery-fresh bride Minnie and the tragic story of their precious Henry, taken too soon. It’s as if these Sturms have come to me, like Derek and Nicoletta, and asked me to do the thing I do, to preside over their death.
These Sturms don’t want Frank Ocean or a seven-course meal, though. They’ve requested a Michigan Daily article, and a second life via imagination — yours and mine.
If that ain’t supernatural, I don’t know what is.