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'Cemetery' is funny, with tenor of small towns

Death seems like a funny topic for a funny book, but that's part of what "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery," by Margaret Olson Webster, aims at. It often hits the mark.

Death seems like a funny topic for a funny book, but that's part of what "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery," by Margaret Olson Webster, aims at. It often hits the mark.

It's interesting to me that, for such an important place, I wouldn't have thought about how much of small town life funnels through it. It turns out, it's a robust, if a little unusual, vantage point on the world.

Webster writes from tiny Tamarack, not terribly far from where I grew up in Moose Lake. Three generations of her family, including Webster, have been associated with that town's Lakeside Cemetery, where the first records were kept in Finnish and the organization of the plots was pretty much encrypted, having to be puzzled out after years of confusion.

Webster writes that cemeteries are a place to hear voices, but not the kind you might expect: "After years of work on location and research I became accustomed to 'live ones' dropping by to ask about the work, or to make specific comments over specific graves," she writes.

And so she learned stories and history.

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The book is full of funny moments, like bizarre occurrences at funerals, alongside weird facts, like the land itself for Lakeside, which was donated after a property dispute and an "improperly" buried stillborn baby. People may be surprised to learn about ethnic rivalries in cemeteries.

And then there's something I have experience with -- cemeteries are bad places to dig. One summer when I was in college, I was doing landscaping. We were working on a cemetery plot out near Kettle River, and as I was digging back part of the topsoil, my shovel hit something solid -- a vault. As unnerved as that made me feel, I can only imagine how diggers at Lakeside felt digging in a poorly marked area of the cemetery and having things cave in. It's enough to give you the shivers.

And there's lots more. I don't want to give too many of the stories away.

As for graveside humor, there's plenty of it. Just like any other field, workers in cemeteries and funeral homes apparently have office banter, and Webster is kind enough to share it with us. Funeral directors joke about grave markers for "STRANGE MAN." Diggers play morbid pranks on other diggers.

Other stories are sad or full of local lore. There's the story of a young man who was in the armed forces but decided not to go to war in 1943. Instead, he lived in the swamps, on the run, for 60 years.

You get lots of stories that touch on historic life in that part of the state -- particularly intriguing was the story of gathering ice on the lakes for iceboxes.

Webster also feels compelled to write about her philosophy of death in this book. One can't argue with her credentials. I didn't find this writing as interesting as the rest of the book, but your mileage may vary.

As for the writing itself, it's pretty good. The tone is something like you might expect to hear at a potluck in a small-town church basement -- tossing out anecdotes, more organized than the sort of free association you might hear there but with the same casual feel. The armchair philosophy mixes right in naturally. It felt like coming home for me.

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Sometimes Webster pulls off nice sentences like this: "I wonder what internal forces continually pull the cement corner markers down -- down, until they become lost in a heavy layer of sod." It's a nice touch to leave that hint of mystery there.

It's not always perfectly clean copy, but the mistakes are minor enough to mostly stay out of your way.

I have to say, though, that its size and structure might lead you to think it's a coffee table book, and it's not. It's as copy-laden as a regular trade paperback, and the artwork and design are nothing special. I don't know how that decision was made, and it's no big deal if you understand going in.

"A Funny Thing" is a nice, likable book.

Review

The book: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Cemetery," Bluepearl Books, 2002.

Author: Margaret Olson Webster

Cost: $30

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ISBN: 0-9722378-0-1

Recommendation: Webster tells the story of small town Minnesota life as seen from one of its most important places -- the cemetery. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes bizarre, it's quite a perspective.

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