I was moved to see that strangers had taken snapshots of headstones for my ancestors whose names I’d just learned, and I was touched to see the word “beloved” carved into the stones in Hebrew. I discovered that several relatives from both parents’ sides of the family are buried in the Waldheim Cemetery outside of Chicago, a Jewish burial site dating to 1870. Several photos of their gravestones were uploaded by someone named The Dark Poet, and this person had left virtual memorial flowers for them — a sunflower for my great grandfather Jacob, two purple flowers for my great grandmother Esther Rifka, relatives I had never honored myself. I clicked on The Dark Poet’s profile, and learned he is Wiccan, and dedicates his Find A Grave work to those who suffer from major depression.
His profile says: “People who do not suffer from this will NEVER understand how much strength it takes just to get up each day and fight to keep going. For this reason, I will always have a special place in my heart to those who have left this world by suicide.”
He’s personally photographed and uploaded more than 90,000 photos of gravestones, adding that he doesn’t know how those people died. But he said because of his own suicidal thoughts, he’s explored the idea of death extensively.
My mom died by suicide in 2009, so his sentiment hit home. I felt a pull to reach out to The Dark Poet, to thank him for memorializing my ancestors, for dedicating his work to those who took their own lives and to find out more about why he decided to honor the lives and deaths of strangers. He agreed to talk to me, asking to do it by email since his long-haul trucking schedule didn’t always allow for phone calls. He shared his full name, but asked me to use only his first name, Daniel, here.
Daniel, a 46-year-old singer/songwriter and former chef, started writing poetry at age 13 as an escape from depression and bullying; he credits it and music with saving his life. He became a member of Find A Grave in October 2015.
“It opened a whole new world to me,” he told me. “I had always been interested in cemeteries since I was young. Soon as I saw this site, I knew I had to join and contribute.”
He said he enjoys visiting cemeteries, and the site gave him an opportunity to make what he called a “proper memorial” for his former fiancee, a woman he called his soul mate, who died in 2005.
“I was never able to go up to Maine to see her grave,” he said. “But a very nice volunteer got me the photos and also left flowers on her grave for me.”
I told him how moved I was that he had left virtual flowers for my great grandparents and other relatives and saw on his profile that he had left more than 47,000 virtual flowers across the site. I asked what inspired him to leave these flowers and how he chose them for each person.
“In the beginning,” he told me, “I would leave flowers for children, military and close family. One day, it clicked to me that even if I didn’t know the person, everyone who has a memorial deserves at least a flower or token to show respect … I wanted to make sure they were at least never forgotten. The worst thing to be in this world is forgotten.”
He started creating virtual flowers and tokens based on what he saw on the headstones, whether it was religion or military, or memberships in groups like Masons or Shriners. For graves with foreign languages, he would try to personalize them by adding a flower native to their home country. He told me that when he takes photos, he’ll “mow the rows,” starting at the top corner of a section and go stone by stone to make sure no one is missed. “I also read each name out loud to honor them,” he told me.
He mentioned that many people had expressed gratitude for the photos and flowers he had posted, but he had also received angry messages from people who were grieving and didn’t want photos of their loved ones’ graves online.
“I tried to be polite and explained about the whole idea of the site, to honor all those who came before, and also to get grave photos, because you never know when another cemetery will be vandalized,” he said.
He said an example is the Waldheim cemetery, where my relatives were laid to rest. He went there and took photos one weekend in 2016, and the next weekend when he went back, he said a driver had gone off the road and taken out about a dozen grave stones and destroyed them.
“Luckily I was there to get the photos and they are now permanently on the site in their original form,” he said.
Also, he explained, cemeteries are sometimes vandalized by people who steal photo ceramics — portraits of the deceased printed onto porcelain, then adhered to their gravestones, a popular practice around the turn of the 20th century. He said he wants to capture the beauty of these stones before that happens, or before others use the photo ceramics for gun target practice, which he said happens sometimes.
This sent chills through me; it appears that had been the case with my great uncle Leo’s grave — there is a clearly disrupted space at the top of his headstone where there had likely been a photo ceramic.
Find A Grave was started in 1995 by celebrity grave enthusiast Jim Tipton, and purchased in 2013 by Ancestry.com. It has sparked quite a community, with over a million contributors to the site, robust online forums and community meetups at cemeteries in October (curbed this year because of the pandemic). I asked Daniel whether he connected with other people who frequently post on Find A Grave, and he mentioned that he was taking photos at a cemetery in Rockford, Ill., when an older gentleman drove up and correctly guessed he was “Dark Poet,” a name Daniel has used since he was a senior in high school.
Given the time he spends among the dead and writing about death (one line in a poem he wrote: “I Am Beyond Death/Yet Still I Die”), I was eager to know Daniel’s own views on death. “I believe we all are energy and when our bodies die, our energy continues on in the spiritual realm,” he told me.
He said he believes that after death, we all connect with family that died before us, even generations earlier.
“I also believe we all have a certain timeline that was set for us, and if we veer off that path or take our own life without completing that path, we have to learn what we did wrong before we can finally ascend into the higher realm,” he said.
Since my mother’s death, I’ve done a lot of reading about the mythology and philosophy of suicide, but Daniel introduced me to some new ideas. He believes when some people fight terminal diagnoses and survive, it disrupts the balance of the universe.
“For every person who uses medical science to reverse their own death (cancer, leukemia, etc.),” he said, “I believe that a balance still has to be struck, and this is where I think some suicides come into play, to offset the person that didn't follow their path properly. Someone needed to be a substitute for that soul.”
Daniel told me he has created his own advance obituary for himself on Find A Grave.
“Since I have been depressed and suicidal for most of my life, it was almost a relief to do this memorial. I wanted to make sure it said what I felt needed to be said about myself and also to post the photos that I feel are the most important to me,” he said.
On his Find A Grave profile page, Daniel quotes Robin Williams: “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”
I’m grateful Daniel has taken his own pain and used it to help others find the resting places of their loved ones and honor those who have come before him. I went to Find A Grave looking for ancestors who were long gone, and am so glad I found this living soul.
Gayle Brandeis is the author of several books, including “Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony)” and “The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide.”
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