It’s quite amazing how fast time flies. A few years ago on this very date, I was walking the grounds of Mount Olivet and taking photos of some of the many, holiday decorated graves in the cemetery. For those who have never visited Mount Olivet at this time of year, I strongly urge you to come and see for yourself.
Mother Nature and her “seasonal work” certainly helps create distinct, and different, cemetery imagery throughout the year. These include the annual backdrop changes—bright pastels of spring, the lush, greenery of summer, fall foliage and occasional blankets of snow in winter. But that’s not where it ends as some of this changing viewshed is man-made. Floral arrangements, flower pots and hanging baskets aesthetically please the eye in our monumental “city” of gray and white stones. Memorial Day boasts 4,000 flaglets of red, white and blue—proudly placed on the graves of 4,000 military veterans thanks to the yearly efforts of our local American Legion post.
Now in wintertime, when we don’t have snow, the cemetery has the potential to look its least visually pleasing. However, the loyal and creative efforts of our lot-holders and hundreds of families/descendents bring warmth through holiday decorating of gravesites with items such as wreaths, garland, poinsettias, holiday figurines and solar lights. We even have some instances where folks have placed miniature Christmas trees by graves.
I know this tradition of holiday grave decorating isn’t for everyone, as we occasionally field complaints and displeasure from certain lot-holders and patrons telling us that some gravesite exhibitions look tacky and trite. Our management view here at the cemetery holds that those who are decorating graves be respectful to neighboring sites, while exercising a degree of decorum. Many say, “Cemeteries are for the living,” and we all have different ways of showing our love and gratitude to family members and friends of yore at this special time of year. Maybe not the most appropriate thing to say in reference to a cemetery, but I say “Live and let live!”
Last year, a holiday decorating effort in Mount Olivet made front page news in our local newspaper. An 11-year-old from Ashburn, VA, Ella Myers, decorated the Babyland Area of the cemetery with hand-painted popsicle sticks/tongue depressors which she had painted herself. For those not familiar with this area of the cemetery, Babyland is a very special place reserved for the most innocent of our decedents, such as newborns, infants and small toddlers. There are roughly 500 buried here, only about half having some sort of marker or monument. For some individuals, this is considered the saddest place in the cemetery as one ponders the fact that these children didn’t have the opportunity to experience what the rest of us have.
The genesis for Ella’s efforts occurred a few weeks before when the youngster accompanied her grandparents on a decorating mission to the cemetery for a few family member graves. She told us that she felt sad that many graves in the cemetery were not decorated for the holidays, especially taking particular notice of those gravesites of babies and small children. Ella commented on how lucky she is to be able to celebrate the holidays, while these children don’t have that chance. She wanted to make sure that these children were remembered by someone in addition to beloved family members who still survive and mourn their losses-a very evocative gesture for the rest of us.
We did receive a few complaints about Ella’s kind gesture. Some folks didn’t like the fact that a stick saying “Happy Holidays” was placed, while others thought that it was an invasion of privacy. For the most part, countless folks were amazed and the maturity, initiative and thoughtfulness by this young person who is not even a Frederick resident. Well, Ella came back again last weekend, and placed newly hand-crafted “sticks” on the graves that include markings. We, the cemetery staff and Board of Directors, applaud this young lady’s selflessness and efforts.
It’s interesting for me to see another uncanny connection here between Ella’s “Christmas in Babyland” project and my memorable day of picture taking two years ago. I found myself in Area Q, within ten yards of the famed Barbara Fritchie monument, when I suddenly became captivated by the grave of a three-year-old child, named Owen Wendell Compher. Like Ella, little Owen was a native of Virginia, and has familial connections to Ella’s home of Loudoun County.
Owen Wendell Compher
Owen Wendell Compher passed in 1914, and his final resting place was marked by a classic figurine monument depicting a winged, cherub angel. Standing only a few feet high, I had seen this hand-sculpted piece plenty of times before, but on this particular day, someone had added a distinct hint of holiday flare. No, it wasn’t a popsicle stick, but rather a festive laurel wreath placed on its head.
Now, I want to explain a few things here for those who may not understand the symbolism of cherubs and laurel wreaths, especially as they pertain to cemeteries. Cherubs were commonly used to designate the graves of children. This was very common in the Victorian period, but still holds true today in some cases. Cherubs have actually been humanized and depicted as pudgy babies or toddlers with Baroque fashioned wings. They are said to symbolize the omnipresence of God.
A laurel wreath is a symbol of victory and honor. It is a round wreath made of interlocking branches and leaves of the bay laurel. It is worn as a chaplet around the head, or as a garland around the neck. In Greek mythology, Apollo is represented wearing a laurel wreath on his head. In ancient Greece wreaths were awarded to victors, both in athletic competitions, including the ancient Olympics, and in poetic meets. In Rome, laurels were symbols of martial victory, crowning a successful commander during his triumph. They commonly appear in funerary art as representing a victory over death by the decedent. While we are on the subject, the common expression "resting on one's laurels" refers to someone relying entirely on long-past successes for continued fame or recognition.
Thinking back to the day I took the picture, I wondered as I wandered out under the sky. “Who decorated this grave?—Was it a relative or family historian—or just an admirer of this beautiful monument, which, over time, has lost both arms. And how the heck did that happen?
I next pondered the more important question at hand: “Who was Owen Compher, and why was his life taken at such a young age?”
I may never learn the answer of who placed the laurel wreath on young Owen’s cherub- themed monument. But this internet blog format of ours may be read one day by the creative “outfitter” in question, and hopefully will contact me so that I can relay the rest of the story. In the meantime, here is what I learned of young Owen.
Owen Wendell Compher was born August 29th, 1910. He was the only son of Owen West Compher (1879-1978) and wife Alice C. Hughes (1881-1964). The family lived in Norfolk, Virginia at the time of their son’s birth. Mr. Compher was a bookkeeper, and later served as secretary/treasurer for the J. E. Etheridge Lumber Yard operation in town.
Little Owen’s father, Owen West Compher, was born in Loudoun County, VA, his family having deep roots in the Lovettsville area. He moved to Frederick as a toddler and grew up here, his family taking up residence at 201 Washington Street. Owen West's name appears a great deal in the papers of Frederick in the 1890’s and 1900’s in connection with musical interludes. He seems to have been a talented pianist and violinist. To make his living however, he would use his fingers more readily on credit and debit sheets as he served as bookkeeper for the Frederick Milling Company. Owen West never abandoned music as he once held the role of organist for All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church. Mr. Compher would abandon Frederick, however, relocating to Norfolk, VA in 1904.
Owen Wendell Compher’s mother hailed from Baltimore, and was the former Alice Cramer Hughes. She was the daughter of Wendell O. Hughes and Harriet Rebecca Cramer. Alice and family once lived at 49 W. Second Street in Frederick City. They moved to town after her father died prematurely at the age of 38 of pneumonia. Alice was only twelve at the time.
In June, 1909, the Baltimore Sun reported that Miss Hughes had married Owen West Compher of Norfolk, VA. The couple were married at the Strawbridge Methodist Episcopal Church outside of New Windsor, MD. Afterwards, they departed on a honeymoon trip to Atlantic City (NJ), after which the new Mrs. Compher made her home with husband Owen in Norfolk.
In March of 1914, young Owen began experiencing fever and headache, the cardinal signs associated with the illness that would take his life—tuberculosis. Within two months, the Compher’s only child was gone. He passed on May 7th, and was first buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk. Forty-two years later, our cemetery records show that Owen Wendell’s body was moved to Frederick. A small burial service took place at 1:00pm on September 27th, 1956 as the Compher’s child was placed in a lot owned by Alice’s family of Hughes and Cramers. Little Owen’s grave monument was moved to Mount Olivet as well, after spending four decades on the Virginia coast.
Respective footstone monuments for Mr. and Mrs. Compher were placed on the Hughes-Cramer family lot the following week, directly across for the winged cherub. Mr. and Mrs. Compher lived out the majority of their lives in Norfolk, but lived at Richmond's Hermitage Methodist Home in their Golden Years. Their mortal remains would join that of their son up here in Frederick. Alice Compher died in November, 1964 at the age of 83. She would celebrate 50 Christmases without her only child.
Owen West Compher lived to be 98. One will notice that no one made the effort to make sure his death date of January 29th, 1978 was added to his monument. Owen West Compher rose up the ladder of Norfolk's J. E. Ethridge Lumber Company, eventually serving as President. On a personal level, endured 14 Christmas Days without his beloved wife, and carried the weight of 64 Christmastimes without his son and namesake. Both of these parents surely possessed a tremendous void in both heart and mind.
I went out to visit the grave of Owen Wendell Compher the other day. After researching his life and that of his parents, I certainly felt further enlightened than on my inaugural visit two years ago. In the same vein, as I stared through the viewfinder of my camera to take a new picture of little Owen’s grave monument, I certainly felt a sense of sadness. I had been drawn by the stylish laurel wreath decoration placed atop the cherub’s head two years prior, but now I took note of its stark absence. My eyes were drawn to the broken arms of the statue. Immediately, I thought to myself how they could symbolically represent the two broken hearts of his parents.
This pain isn’t any different than what the parents of Babyland’s inhabitants feel each time this year. For those of us fortunate enough to never have had a child in Babyland, or a cemetery for that matter, we can do our best to follow young Ella’s lead. Keep these precious little ones (and their parents) in your thoughts and prayers this time of year—and may all the children in Mount Olivet, and within burying grounds throughout the world, "sleep in heavenly peace."