Friday, June 12, 2015

Vicarious Cemetery Travel

Bianca, by Mike Spak
At the beginning of June, 2015, I took a trip to Denver, Colorado, with my family. I had to teach all weekend at a medical conference, and had no opportunity to do any cemetery travel. One evening we had dinner with my friend Mike Spak, who lives in Boulder, Colorado. During dinner, he began showing me the photos on his smart phone. Oddly, several were cemetery photos that he had taken in various places.

I had forgotten that he did this sort of thing. So during dinner, I enjoyed some cemetery travel vicariously through him! The photos you see here are all Mike's.

The angel with the guitar belongs to Bianca Halstead (1965 – 2001), a.k.a Bianca Butthole. She was the bassist and lead singer of the Hollywood-based hard rock band Betty Blowtorch. Bianca was killed in an auto accident in New Orleans. She is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA.  Hollywood Forever is a “must see” for any Cemetery Traveler. I’ve been there twice. (Read more about Bianca here

Photo by Mike Spak

William S. Burroughs (1914 – 1997), is the American beat writer famous for his 1959 counterculture novel Naked Lunch. He is interred in the Burroughs family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri. I have always felt guilty for not reading Burroughs, though I am a big fan of Jack Kerouac, another beat writer. Quite a bit of Kerouac’s novel On the Road is based in Denver, and I did feel a bit of that vibe walking down Larimer Street, which is where Kerouac hit town in 1947 when this area was the town’s skid row.

The “Black Angel of Council Bluffs;" photo by Mike Spak

Now for the “Black Angel” of Council Bluffs. Okay, so I thought I knew my cemetery lore. I also thought Mike made up this moniker because this Victorian-era bronze patina angel had taken on a dark hue. Turns out it is locally known as the “Black Angel of Council Bluffs,” Council Bluffs being a town in Iowa across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska.

The angel resides in Fairview Cemetery, marking the grave of Ruth Ann Dodge. The bronze sculpture holds a bronze basin of running water and appears to be standing in a granite boat. After Dodge died in 1916, her two daughters commissioned the memorial to be made by Daniel Chester French, who is best known for creating the white marble statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to the website,, the young women “had strict criteria for French as to how the angel was supposed to look. They wanted it to be a likeness of an angel that had appeared to their mother during a series of visions that she had before her death.”

Interesting. Many such sculptures are created either from a mold or from a live model. This one appeared to be created in the likeness of an actual angel. According to, Dodge’s dreams were realistic and overwhelming visions about which her daughter Anne stated: “We realized this was no dream, no ordinary occurrence, but an apparition such as appeared to those saints of olden times, who were spiritual seers, holy enough to penetrate the fleshly veil and view spiritual things hidden from the worldly minded.”

Photo by Mike Spak
In these visions, Ruth Dodge described to her daughters that she was on the rocks of a seashore. Out of the mist, “she saw an ancient boat appear that was covered with roses and rare and fragrant flowers. As it approached, she saw that a beautiful young woman was standing in the bow of the ship. As soon as Ruth saw her, she knew that she was a spiritual being and “not of this earth.” (ref.)

The young woman was clad in a glistening white garment that fell in long folds from her shoulders to her feet. Her hair, which reached to her shoulders, looked like spun gold, forming a halo around her head. Her eyes were bright and seemed to look at Ruth, and yet through her, and were filled with an expression that was beyond description.”

The being came toward Ruth carrying a vessel under her arm. The vessel was filled with water that Ruth said “glistened, glittered and sparkled like millions of diamonds.” The woman offered it to her and urged her to drink from it, telling her that it contained a blessing. But as much as Ruth craved the water, she told her daughters, she was not ready to drink it just yet. A few moments later, she “awoke” and the vision was gone. (ref.)

"Ruth had the same vision three times and on the third time, she drank from the water that the angel offered her. A few days later, she died. On her deathbed, she told her daughters that the angel offered her the “wonderful water of life. I drank from it and it gave me immortality.” (ref.)

To the best of their abilities, and based on Ruth’s physical description of the supernatural being in her visions, her daughters had the “black angel” sculpted and placed over their mother’s grave. They must have assumed it was an angel, since their mother never mentioned wings. The angel is standing in a granite boat and is carrying a vessel with water that continually runs. I never really thought about fountains in cemeteries. The angel may symbolize immortality, but then so might running water. The water of life ....

So thanks to my friend Mike for the virtual cemetery tour!