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Grave hunting? Here's your guide
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Stew Thornley loves to hunt for notable gravesites. He's seen many presidential graves, and the burial plots of baseball Hall of Famers. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
Cemetery surfing. With Web sites like to help guide them, more and more people are tracking down the final resting spots of the dead. For those who need a little guidance on their quest, the Minnesota Historical Society Press has published a new book highlighting some of the state's more notable graves. It's called "Six Feet Under: A Graveyard Guide to Minnesota."

St. Paul, Minn. — Stew Thornley stands on a gravel path hedged by freshly mowed grass and fallen leaves.

"We're in Oakland Cemetery right now in the heart of St. Paul, just north of downtown, which is one of the oldest -- if not the oldest -- cemeteries in the city," says Thornley. "And a lot of the pioneers of Minnesota, early governors, territorial governors, state governors, others are buried here."

Thornley scans the 100-acre-cemetery, straining to get his bearings, as he's surrounded by 48,000 tombstones.

"If I'm not mistaken, over here we'll have Sibley and Ramsey together," Thornley says.

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Image Alexander Ramsey's marker

Henry Sibley was Minnesota's first governor. Alexander Ramsey was the second. Thornley has seen their graves many times. But on this brisk fall morning he's a little disoriented.

"And you know what? I think I'm lost. What section is this? This is 15A. This way, according to my map," says Thornley. "I might be a guy, but I still use a map and I'm not afraid to ask directions."

After consulting his map, Thornley soon picks out the two stately stones that mark the governors' graves. As he walks up to Ramsey's headstone, he's visibly relieved.

"I almost thought maybe he'd moved," says Thornley.

It took less than five minutes of searching to find Ramsey and Sibley. Hardly any time at all, considering the size of Oakland Cemetery.

Thornley had his map to help him out at times. But when he searches for a grave halfway across the country, he usually needs a bit more to go on.

"I might check a Web site like," says Thornley. "That has listings of these famous people. But it also might have a photograph of where they're buried, and with that you know what you're looking for. Maybe you might even just see something in the background that provides a clue."

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Image Henry Sibley's marker

Besides photographs and maps, Thornley also brings tools when he goes searching for graves.

"Especially if it's just a flat stone marker, they can be overgrown with the grass. Sometimes you kind of cut away the grass, and try to clean it up with -- if nothing else, just a whisk broom," says Thornley. "I've had ice scrapers and things like that in my arsenal too. If I'm a long ways away from home I'll chop some ice to get to see a grave."

There's no need for ice scrapers just yet in Oakland Cemetery, although a whisk broom might be helpful. A blanket of leaves covers the ground, hiding some of the flat markers.

After wandering a bit more through the graveyard, Thornley comes upon other notable names from Minnesota's past in quick succession -- state Supreme Court Justice Charles Flandreau, U.S. Sen. Henry Mower Rice, and his brother Edmund Rice, who was mayor of St. Paul. So far, the search is easy.

So, are any notable women in this particular cemetery?

"Yeah, Harriet Bishop was an early school teacher," says Thornley. "In fact, she is credited with starting the first school in Minnesota. Let's see if we can wander over and find her."

According to the map, Bishop's grave was in block 10, lot number 29.

"She's not too tough once you get in the area, because she has a fairly notable marker," says Thornley.

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Image Charles Flandreau's marker

Confident from his early victories, Thornley heads for block 10. A few minutes later he checks his map again and squints to see the tiny white and black marker signs.

"You know actually 10 goes across the way," says Thornley. "I believe if I recall correctly Harriet Bishop is on that side of the road."

But things still don't seem right once Thornley reaches the other side of the road.

"We might have overshot Harriet here," says Thornley. "I've known people who call out for the people they're looking for."

Cemetary surfers call out the names of the dead?

"I've done it before, but only if I'm by myself and there's nobody around to witness such odd behavior," says Thornley. "I've heard people who've said they've been called back to. They've called out, 'Where are you?' And then some kind of a signal comes up. The sun shines down on the grave or something like that. I'm not much of a believer in anything that eerie. Let's veer this way."

Forty minutes later Thornley is no closer to finding Bishop. That's just how it goes sometimes. Even with a map that lists a block and lot number, finding a particular grave can be tricky when the cemetery layout is winding and irregular, like it is at Oakland. But Thornley isn't discouraged.

"I'm thinking it might be this obelisk up here. It might be," says Thornley. "If you want you can call out to her and see if that works."

"Harriet, where are you?"

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Image Harriet Bishop's marker

"Let's backtrack a little bit. This is fun isn't it?"

Sometimes, when he's searching for a grave, Thornley stumbles upon unexpected treasure.

"I was in New Ulm in a cemetery looking for somebody else, and I saw the name Wilfarht on a large marker, and I thought, 'Wilfarht in New Ulm, that could be Whoopy John, the Polka King,'" says Thornley. "And sure enough, it said Whoopy John. So sometimes you just come across it."

That's obviously not the case with this quest for Harriet Bishop. She's done an amazing job concealing herself in the thicket of gravestones and trees at Oakland Cemetery.

"You know what. I think she's right up there. This stone looked familiar, kind of a reddish stone," says Thornley. "And that's it. Harriet E. Bishop."

The stone isn't an obelisk after all, which perhaps explains the many detours in finding it. It's a thick slab of red granite. But after an hour-long search, it doesn't matter. All that does is that it really exists.

"It took all that walking, but we came across Harriet," says Thornley. "'In recognition of the lofty Christian spirit and untiring zeal of Harriet E. Bishop, who on July 25, 1847 organized ours, the first Sunday school in Minnesota.' And this was put up by the First Baptist Church of St. Paul."

For someone who has spent so much time wandering among gravestones, it's probably not surprising to find out that Stew Thornley has already made arrangements for his own burial. He and his wife picked a plot in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, also home of many notable Minnesotans with names like Humphrey, Wellstone and Brooks.

"I like to say we've got some lakefront property in Minneapolis now," says Thornley. "It's about 17 by 34 inches, but it's ours."

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