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A Conversation with Jennie Benford

During the week, Jennie Benford is the archivist for Carnegie Mellon University's library. On weekends, she peruses a more personal kind of historical record, leading Saturday-afternoon public tours of Homewood Cemetery.

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Is this part of some lifelong cemetery obsession?
Obsession is such a strong word. I've always been interested in cemeteries -- we have an interesting one in my hometown, Elyria, Ohio; it was next to my cousin's house so I kind of grew up around there. When I first moved to Pittsburgh, I didn't know what they did with all the dead people -- I lived in Oakland, and I didn't see any cemeteries around. But when I was working as a docent at the Frick, it was so close that I just ended up going over.

So it's really not spooky or scary?
The cemetery tours aren't weird and they're not spooky -- even if people come expecting that, we don't deliver, because we're an active cemetery, and we're respectful. Anyway, living people are much more scary than dead people -- I have no problem at all with dead people. It's not a scary place, and it's designed that way: That's one difference between graveyards and cemeteries -- cemeteries use landscape architecture. They're designed to be enjoyable. I have people sidle up to me during a tour and say, 'You're going to think I'm really weird, but I really like cemeteries.' But that's not weird, you're just reacting to what the people designed it to do -- so you're not weird, you're just gullible.

You mean, a cemetery isn't a graveyard?
A cemetery is a very recent concept -- the first one in America is 1831, Mount Auburn in Boston. The difference is, especially to me as an archivist, is that cemeteries as opposed to graveyards are set up as businesses, so everything is a transaction -- and every transaction creates records. Most personal records have a life cycle that ends when the person dies -- cemetery records begin when a person dies. Cemeteries are a mirror of a living city, there are neighborhoods. Catholic and Jewish communities are underrepresented in Homewood, but really most everything else is well represented. There's even a Chinatown.

In one neighborhood -- "Millionaire's Row" -- some of the mausoleums are nicer than a lot of apartments; do folks ever get cheesed off about that?
You're talking about Section 14. Yeah, people do get pissy sometimes -- and you know, I'm the daughter of union arbitrators, and I can understand: I'm a pinko myself. But at the same time, the money that the Benedums spent on the mausoleum for their son who died in World War I is miniscule compared to the foundation money that they pour into West Virginia and Pennsylvania each year. I'm not here to honor Caesar, but let's be honest: a lot of people in Section 14 are the people with foundations here in Pittsburgh, and when you look at how much their mausoleums cost compared to that, it's a no-brainer.

Is there one thing on the tour that people react to the most?
People react to Section 14 a lot, for a couple reasons. In front of the R.B. Mellon Mausoleum, for example, is a sculpture called "Motherless." So there's this bronze, life-sized figure, and it looks like real people -- a haggard looking father with a little girl sitting on his lap -- and people think it's got to be a heart-wrenching story of a young mother dying. But what it is, R.B. Mellon redesigned his garden, and this sculpture was there but didn't fit anymore -- since he was on the board at Homewood, he had it placed in front of a mausoleum. "Motherless" is just the name of the sculpture.

Allegheny Cemetery's got Stephen Foster -- what have you got?
We don't need that stinkin' Stephen Foster, we've got [jazz great] Erroll Garner. He's got a piano on his stone. And he's right across the street from Pearl Mesta -- she's the "hostess with the mostest" -- that's where that phrase comes from. She was a Texas society girl who married an Italian machinist from Pittsburgh, George Mesta of Mesta Machines. He died young, and she got the hell out of Pittsburgh and went to Washington, where she became a famed society hostess.

Any odd encounters with your tour members?
I was once giving a tour to a group of ladies from a garden club -- older ladies on a tour bus. And we got around to Section 14, around the Benedum mausoleum, and one of the ladies insisted on getting out and looking at it. She was quite frail, and needed a couple of people to help her get out and walk over to it. It turned out this 80-some year old woman's mother had been engaged to Claude Worthington Benedum, the only child of the Benedums, when he died in World War I.

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