Allegedly, if you stop by the office at the main entrance at Woodlawn, you can pick up a map of the grounds, complete with tour stop information and indicators of famous graves. I saw allegedly, because I've never actually seen this map in person. The office is empty when I walk in, and there's not a map to be found. I'll see them out later as I drive through the grounds, cemetery attendants ( funereal directors? grave peddlers? Who are these people, and what are they called?) showing prospective internees the very latest and most exciting locations. Selling final resting spaces like they're selling cars. It's not disturbing, exactly, but it is striking how business-like the whole thing is. I can only hope I can be so composed when planning my own burial.
But I'm not here for burials. I'm here for graves. Famous graves.
The name Johnny Morehouse might not mean anything to you, but it's arguably the most recognizable grave in Woodland. It's so well known, there's a little marker next to the site that says "Tour Stop 1." Little Johnny's first in line.
The story goes that five-year-old Johnny fell into the Miami & Erie Canal while playing near his home. His faithful dog jumped in after him, and managed to pull the boy out, but not in time to save his life. That part is true, but the legend that follows is a classic one; the dog was so bereft at the loss of Little Johnny that he sat at the grave morning, noon, and night. Visitors were so concerned, they began to leave little plates of food for man's best friend.
Toys and coins are still left behind for Little Johnny. It's highly unlikely that any of these people are connected to the Morehouses in any way, but the tradition lives on. There's a woman who walks the cemetery every day who collects the coins left behind on Johnny's grave, and uses the money to buy another small toy for Johnny's collection.
Undeniably, the most famous grave at Woodland belongs to the Wright brothers. There are plenty of Wright's here, but only Orville and Wilber are buried under the Ohio and American flags. This is the first time I've encountered pennies left behind on gravestones. The internet tells me that this is a sign of respect, that visitors leave behind coins to honor the legacy of the deceased. (Folklore also says that if you drop a penny on a grave and make a wish, the person's spirit is honor bound to help it come true.) The next time I visit a cemetery, I'm bringing with me a pocket full of pennies.
Just beyond the Wrights is a purple flag marking the grave of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of America's first prominent African-American poets. Set against his memorial stone is a marker for his wife, Alice Dunbar. I don't know if she's buried here - she died in Philidelphia 29 years after her husband's passing, and remarried twice. Alice was a prominent poet, journalist, and activist in her own right - I imagine if she were also buried here, Woodland wouldn't hesitate to claim her.
Someone's left a pair of quarters on Paul's stone - a friendly competition with the Wrights? They knew each other in life - Paul went the same school as the Orville and Wilber. In fact, his first writings appeared in a paper put out by the brothers, who owned their own printing press. They later invested in the Dayton Tattler, the area's first African-American paper, edited and published by Dunbar. Small world.
The last grave I want to see is the marker for Erma Bombeck. There's a helpful sign to point me the direction of her final resting place. I follow the arrows and look. And look. And look.
There are no words on Erma's grave, nothing to indicate that here lies a person. If you don't know what you're looking for, you'd never find it. Up until the writing of this article I thought I'd missed her completely, until I saw a picture of her memorial and realized that she and I had been together the whole time.
I snapped a picture of the stone because there was a wreath against it. I didn't know it meant anything at the time. The rock comes from Arizona - Erma's husband Bill wanted to remember her with a piece of Phoenix, where the pair spent 25 years together. Erma herself was a well-respected journalist and humorist before she died. I think this unmarked grave might be her last great joke.
There are plenty of other famous graves at Woodland: Leslie Carter, 'The American Sarah Bernhardt"; Levi and Matilda Stanley, the King and Queen of the Gypsies; George P. Huffman, maker of Huffy Bicycles; and too many more to mention. Plan your own visit to Woodland, and see a bit of history.