Sudden Death, Over Time: Steeler Graves

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Robert K. James, Allegheny Cemetery

In the great Autumn campaign that is each of our lives, we’ll inevitably begin to feel those last seconds of the final game tick off the clock. We can all hope to make it deep into the playoffs–heck, some may even get lucky enough to reach this preposterous metaphor’s Super Bowl. But even with the very best “clock management,” we’re all heading toward a long long off-season in the sky at some point.

matching graves with Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Stacy and Stephen Slanina, Allegheny Cemetery

Forever, the Purple One reminds us, is a mighty long time. It’s likely, though, that The Prince was not thinking about funeral arrangements when he urged us all to “go crazy.” So I’m sure it’s with no small amount of consideration that most folks choose the design and ornament of a gravestone–either for oneself (if he or she likes to plan ahead) or for the loved one the family is burying (more likely?).

Why, there’s the stone itself, available in any number of shapes, sizes, finishes, and flourishes. There’s the text–a full name, sometimes with a favorite nickname, birth and death dates*, and then any manner of other possibilities: pithy epitaphs, Bible verses, embedded portraits, etched images both representational (occupations, avocations) and ornamental (flowers, angels, religious insignia).

grave marker with Steelers logo, St. Michael's Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jack W. Springer, St. Michael’s Cemetery

If the deceased happened to champion a particularly well-loved, black-and-gold-hued eleven, chances are maybe better than you’d think that the emblem of said N.F.L. franchise will end up etched into his or her headstone. This act of committing and commemorating the deceased to eternity as a devoted Steeler fanatic lets the living know that while still tripping on this mortal coil he or she bled (hopefully not, you know, all the way out) black and gold.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers flag, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Marie and Jim Coyner, Allegheny Cemetery

It’s a curious choice. Steelers fans would never admit it, but sports franchises are transient things. Pittsburgh has been fortunate to never have one of its teams skip town, but we’re only 80-some years into professional football history–there’s still a lot of time for a lot of things to happen.

Are there graves in Baltimore or Brooklyn or Hartford with Colts, Dodgers, and Whalers logos carved into them? I doubt it, but only because those moves all happened before the relatively recent phenomena of having one’s passions preserved in stone**. But what about St. Louis–are there fresh graves just set with Rams insignia marking them? Possibly…maybe even probably. What an indignity to give one’s afterlife to a team that just high-tailed it back to Los Angeles.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Roman L. Bryant, Allegheny Cemetery

It makes you wonder if this happens everywhere. This blogger can certainly imagine the same level of devotion from fans of the Boston Red Sox or Montreal Canadiens or Green Bay Packers. But what about Cleveland or Cincinnati? They’ve got their own rabid fans, but are there Browns and Bengals graves? We sure hope not–life on earth following these teams was already Hell, why take that misery with you?

upright gravestone with Steelers logo, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Frederick J. Brown, Highwood Cemetery

What about even more marginal sports territories? Is there anyone in Seattle or San Jose that cares enough about the Seahawks or the Sharks to tattoo it on a gravestone? Does most of North Carolina, Florida, or Texas even know they have hockey teams? What monument maker could carve the offensive Cleveland Indian or Washington “redskin” into stone in good faith? I don’t even want to look at the terrible Anaheim “mighty duck”, let alone get buried under it.

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Jeffrey L. Turner, Allegheny Cemetery

All that said, the good people of Pittsburgh are quite comfortable with this option. It wouldn’t be my choice, but I’m glad it is for some. Studying the cemetery is like anything else where we see changes in culture reflected over time. In many ways, future generations will know more about us now from these Steeler graves (as well as the other custom designs and embedded images) than we can derive from their much more opulent 19th century ancestors. At least, they’ll know we (Pittsburgh) sure liked football. On that, they’ll be correct.

gravestone with large Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Kevin Washington, Sr., Highwood Cemetery

* Coming across the occasional stone with no death date is always intriguing. We assume these are just folks who plan farther ahead than Orbit staff, but you never know.
** You’ll note that all photos are from graves dating from 2002 onward. We don’t know when monument makers began offering these kind of options, but almost all of the custom personal interest imagery seems to come from the 1990s-present.

The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 2

handmade grave made from cement block, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

“Bucky” Bailey

In our previous post, we got all philosophical on the nature of a cemetery’s role in eternity. But coming across the D.I.Y. graves in Highwood Cemetery made us think about a lot more than the future of the mortuary industry or how long the living realistically need graves to visit. So in this follow-up we think about the possible reasons that moved these families to create their own grave markers. And, of course, there’s a bunch more pictures.


Adelle Wright

This blogger won’t pretend to know why or how these folks ended up with a homemade cross or a cement building block for their grave marker–there may well be as many different reasons as there are plots. The most obvious though, is that it can be really expensive to purchase and install a custom-made granite stone. From the high hundreds to thousands of dollars it takes to have a stone cut, inscribed, and installed is likely way out of the budget for many people, especially immediately following a death, funeral, and burial.

At Highwood Cemetery, the D.I.Y. graves are all clustered in the same general vicinity, all the way at the back in a section bordering fence and the grounds crew sheds on spot of scrub grass that lacks all of the natural beauty and tall trees of the older sections. I don’t know what the pricing or politics of D.I.Y. graves is, but I’d guess these are the cheap seats.

handmade grave with rough poured concrete, flowers, and spinner, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


It begs a follow-up question, though, which is that if money were the main object, why have a burial at all? Cremation is absolutely the most cost-efficient way to deal with a death and I’m sure there are a lot of people who would suggest that if you don’t have a “real” gravestone, then what’s the point?

I think the answer to that is pretty obvious. For a whole lot of people, it’s still very important to have a physical place to commune with their loved-one and for a totem of that person’s life to exist. Despite all the practicality of cremation, this is really the primary reason why cemeteries exist.

handmade grave with wooden cross and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Leroy Jacks

One thing that struck me about the D.I.Y. graves is that, for the most part, they seem to be visited much more recently than their more permanent neighbors. I’m purely basing that on the volume of flowers, wreaths, personal belongings, etc. that have been applied to them. These items don’t last at cemeteries–they’re routinely cleaned-up in seasonal purges by the grounds crew. With nearly every single one of the D.I.Y. graves having some form of recent offering, it’s a remarkable correlation to the type of grave.

handmade grave with photograph, flowers, and stones in shape of a heart, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


We couldn’t help but think of the study showing an inverse correlation between the amount of money spent on the wedding and the length of the marriage. Maybe in today’s world, purchasing a raised lawn-level plaque is the post-mortal coil equivalent of just buying a Hallmark card and writing a check. How fast can I get out of here?

handmade grave with wooden post, white dove, and memory book, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA



Final note: We’re hooked! If you’ve got a tip on some D.I.Y. graves in the general Pittsburgh area, please let us know.

See also: The D.I.Y Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

The D.I.Y. Graves of Highwood Cemetery, Part 1

handmade grave made of 2x4s with photograph and Hennessy bottles, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


The cemetery, perhaps more than any other civic institution, implies permanence–or maybe eternity. Headstones are carved from granite or cast in bronze. The deceased are entombed in a manicured landscape that we optimistically imagine will appear with the same tranquility forever. Rest in Peace is both believable fantasy and contractual expectation for those laid out under its well-groomed acres.

handmade grave made from 2x4s, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Donald Lowry

So The Orbit‘s purely accidental arrival on a section of homemade or “do-it-yourself” grave markers at the far back of Highwood Cemetery was both a complete surprise and a total revelation. From a single PVC pipe with a child’s art class cement step stone to a pair of two-by-fours crudely nailed together, the departed’s name applied with a Sharpie to the bare wood, these memorials are already sun-bleached, rain-soaked, and definitely won’t make it through that many Pittsburgh winters.


Brub E.F.B.

This blogger will be the first to admit his general good fortune, both in life, and yes, in death. He’s still breathing, for one, and has never had to bury anyone, never had make funeral arrangements or pick out a casket, never had to select a grave plot or deal with a funeral home, never even had to make awkward conversation with distant relatives at the wake of a close loved one.

And so, of course, I’ve also never been in the position to select a headstone. Nor had I ever even considered that one might be able (err…allowed within the cemetery’s rules) to do this for oneself.

handmade grave with wooden cross and paving stones, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Bruce A. Jones

This whole month, Pittsburgh Orbit has been visiting local cemeteries. You start to see some interesting patterns when you spend enough time in a place. One of those is that in terms of visitation, our cemeteries may be roughly divided into three general sections. There’s the older parts, full of dramatic high-gothic mausoleums, giant focus cenotaphs, stained glass, and ornate statuary, often accompanied by a (locally) famous name. Jennie Benford gives a great tour of such monuments in Homewood Cemetery. Then there are the newer sections of (generally) more humble graves for the recently-departed. These collect nearly 100% of the flowers and teddy bears. And then there’s everybody else.

handmade grave with wooden cross, bandana, and Steelers hat, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

R.W.G. Bang

If your name isn’t H.J. Heinz or Lillian Russell or Stephen Foster and if you didn’t choose a gravestone tribute to Jaws, well, your monument may be available–and it’s probably still in good shape and totally legible–but realistically, probably no one cares that much. I’m not trying to harsh the mellow of someone who’s, you know, already dead, but it’s the truth. Even etched in stone, we’ve got a limited shelf life.

handmade grave with wooden cross, blue bow, and flowers, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


I think this is ultimately what gives Highwood’s D.I.Y. graves such emotional power. These aren’t cold stones that will dramatically outlive the families that planted them. They’re very much living tributes for the people who are still in their lives and they will exist for exactly the time they’re most in need–while their loved-ones are still grieving.

I don’t know if it will ever happen, but you could imagine this as a really beautiful, sustainable model for the future. Allow the family to have the closure of a funeral, burial, and a completely home-made memorial that they can visit for five or ten or twenty years–whatever makes sense. But ultimately return the earth to a general pool for another generation to use.

That may or may not be something that would sell to the general cemetery customer but I’d be willing to–let’s abuse our metaphors here–put it in the ground and see who eulogizes it.

Homemade grave with PVC pipe and cast concrete medallion, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


Orbit note: There are so many of these D.I.Y. graves in Highwood and they raised so many interesting questions that we decided to break this into two posts. Here’s part 2.

Sad Toys: Graveyard Edition

pink teddy bear leaning against gravestone

Pink bear, Highwood Cemetery. [Yes: for a sad toy, this guy looks pretty happy–but don’t let that grin fool you!]

The grass-is-greener daydreamers that loaf around Pittsburgh Orbit’s office imagine there’s a point in any blog’s creative arc when the pieces begin to fall together without even trying; when the self-referential tropes loop in on themselves. Like a well-primed compost heap, or a nuclear meltdown, heat is generated all on its own and the stories pop out as fully-formed posts, and then barrel their way through the earth’s core.

“Imagine”? Hell: we’re counting on it! By one reasonable calculation, mere months separate the Orbit from magically appearing on your computer screen without any legwork or finger-clicking on our part. There’s Yoo-hoo in the fridge, call me if you need anything–just don’t interrupt my Rockford Files.

four plastic action figures in weeds in front of gravestone with date and epitaph

“Our Beloved Son”. Superheroes in the weeds, Highwood Cemetery

Whatever the reality of “publishing” “new media,” we don’t think we’re abusing too many metaphors to say there was some kind of magic that happened when this little piece of manna dropped from the sky and rolled across the Orbit editorial desk. There it was: a story with all the ingredients for the most satisfying of autumn blogging stews: a heaping helping of cemetery tales, a motherlode of sad toys, a dash of pathos, some human expression, and nature-without-man chaos. Bitter, sweet, and yes, umami. Oh, and it was all timed for Halloween season–when the graveyard toys rise up to take back what is rightfully theirs.

2 teddy bears in thick grass

Twin teddy bears, Allegheny Cemetery

To label stuffed animals left at grave sites as “sad toys” is certainly a judgement call. These creatures are not flotsam dropped from strollers or ejected from the open windows of minivans. No, the figures were left very intentionally as tribute or companion to the departed. In that way, they’re exactly where their owners expect them to be, doing just what they intend them to do. Is that so bad? We should all be so fortunate.

grave with teddy bears, solar lights, and deflated champagne bottle balloon

Sad teddy bear, sad cool bear, sad inflatable Cristal bottle, Allegheny Cemetery

stuffed animal dog on bed of plastic flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Game over, Rover, Allegheny Cemetery

But to not call them sad would be an even greater oversight. These playthings are, after all, left out in the rain, ice, and snow; their once-soft fur a gnarled, sun-bleached mat. Often alone, these fierce friends watch over the graves of the deceased with no company but the occasional stray deer, opossum, or wild turkey. A drive-by from this flash bulb-popping blogger paparazzi makes the highlight reel of their short lives.

If this wasn’t pathetic enough, these toys’ inevitable fate is to be corralled in every cemetery’s seasonal cleanup where Build-a-Bears and Steeler monkeys join the plastic flowers, laminated photographs, sports balls, Hennessy bottles, and deflated Mylar balloons in grotesque heaps that, as one Orbit pundit put it, “look like a florist threw up.”

stuffed bear and stuffed dog with flowers

Bear and dog, Highwood Cemetery

two plastic action figures with living flowers

Wrestler (?), stunt man (?), last-legs flowers, Highwood Cemetery

To you, faithful servants, doomed sentries of the cemetery, mud-soaked minions of Mordor: know that at least one of us is here looking out for you. You may be in a trash compactor in McKees Rocks by the time we go to press, but you’ll live on for eternity–or at least a couple months–in cyberspace blogosphere Purgatory. Godspeed.

monkey in Pittsburgh Steelers colors with sad bear

Steeler Monkey and friend, Highwood Cemetery