Chautauqua Cemetery becomes perfect final resting place for friends, families strengthened by community

The Fenton Deaconess Hom
Pat Peters, left, and Mimi Gallo share a moment during the Plot Party. The Plotters view their annual gathering as a time for reflection, as a well as a celebration of their friendship. ERIN CLARK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

They’ve traveled all over the world together in life. Now, a group of 32 friends have planned to take their final flight together as well.

The self-proclaimed Plotters are embracing the idea of death and choosing to go at it together. In 2005, the group purchased 32 plots at the Chautauqua Cemetery, and Plotter and artist Judy Gregory designed a special group plot.

The result is 32 flat headstones arranged in an elongated spiral that meets in the center at a teardrop-shaped bench. On the bench are the words “Remember — Return — Reflect — Renew — Receive — Reclaim.”

“I’ve always loved spirals,” Gregory said. “It (is) this kind of eternal shape.”

Among the plantings around the edge of the spiral sits a stone with the words “A Circle of Friends” etched into it.

And that’s exactly what this plot is. Many of the friends have known one another for years — some since they were 5 years old. All of them have a connection to Chautauqua and now, to one another.

“We have a core group of about a dozen people that traveled all over the world together,” Gregory said. “There are several people in the group that I knew from high school — having grown up in this area — but it was mostly just (through) our connection here at Chautauqua that we got to know each other.”

Tom Small, a fourth-generation Chautauquan, was the driving force behind the idea. As the group’s acting travel agent for most of their trips, Small was also the first to propose the group’s final destination.

“This is a place that I cherish and love, and these are all friends that have been with us through the years and experienced both joy and sorrow,” Small said.

According to Small, he first started traveling in 1967 with fellow Plotters Griff and Pat McDonald.

“We had such fun, other people wondered what we were doing,” Small said. “It started with four and then it was eight, and I think the largest trip we actually had was 32. But most of them were around 14 or 16.”

The group has traveled all over the world, visiting places such as Africa, Italy, New Zealand, Turkey, Greece, France and Alaska.

“We’ve had wonderful, wonderful times,” Small said.

Small is one of the few Plotters with a loved one laid to rest in the spiral. His wife Penny passed away last year.

Charles Bussey, left, and his friend Griff McDonald assess their headstones and that of their late friend, Penny Small, at their annual Plot Party last Sunday at the Chautauqua Cemetery. Bussey and McDonald are members of the Plotters, a group of close friends who, having traveled the world together, purchased 32 plots in the cemetery in order to spend the afterlife as a group, as well. “I’m kind of loose,” Bussey told McDonald after teetering on top of his headstone. ERIN CLARK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“There’s four (Plotters) there now and it’s helped all of us because you’re not alone,” Small said.

Every year, the Plotters gather at the cemetery for a “Plot Party.” They bring food and drinks and celebrate both the fact that their headstones still only have a birth date engraved on them and the lives of their friends who have already taken their place in the spiral.

“Obviously there’s sorrow,” Small said. “But most of the talk is about the fun times we had together.”

All of the headstones are engraved with names and birth dates, and most of the Plotters have chosen their epitaphs as well.

The headstone of William Perkins III reads, “We had joy, we had fun,” and continues on his wife Virginia’s adjacent stone, which says, “We had seasons in the sun.”

Fred Gregory’s stone simply says, “Count me in!”

Small, along with the rest of the group, is aware their arrangement is particularly unusual. However, he believes there are many positive aspects to their approach.

“Particularly through grief and hard times, those folks are there to support you,” Small said. “I think the sad part is knowing that our time is limited and we already have members of the group interred there.”

On the other hand, Small said he gets a sense of joy knowing that the group will always be together.

“If they were buried somewhere else in the country, I wouldn’t visit them,” Small said. “But we all come back to Chautauqua. That was part of the idea — that we know that whoever is left is going to be here.”

The group have established an endowment in order to ensure the plot is maintained after all of them have passed.

However, every five years or so, the Plotters get a call from M&T Bank Corporation, with which they have set up the endowment, asking them to clarify exactly who they are and what they’re plotting.

“They don’t really know what we’re doing, so we have to go and straighten that out,” Small said, amused. “Then we put ‘Plotters Cemetery Group’ (on the account) and it still raises questions.”

For Gregory, the idea of buying group plots originated as a joke but has instead become something that makes the idea of dying easier.

“It made it much more comfortable,” Gregory said. “It’s not something we can’t discuss and can’t enjoy. It made it easy to think about dying, almost fun.”

The Plotters aren’t the only community members to take an especially Chautauquan approach to death.

Chautauqua Cemetery Superintendent Dave Beeson remembers walking through the cemetery grounds and thinking he saw a dead body lying in the grass.

“I look down and here’s this guy lying on top of the ground,” Beeson said. “I went over and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Well, this is my land here. I realized that I’m going to be spending more time here than anywhere else and I just wanted to take everything in that I can see around here.’ ”

Gregory said she loves the Chautauqua Cemetery not only because of the Plotters’ investment, but because it is local, historic and “it’s a real community kind of thing.”

The Plotters join many notable Chautauquans who have also chosen to make the Chautauqua Cemetery their final resting place, including former Chautauqua presidents Arthur Bestor and Daniel Bratton.

Cemetery Board President Sylvia Faust’s husband and former chair of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees H. David Faust is buried in another part of the cemetery. She said there is comfort in the fact that when she does pass, she will rest in a place that has meant so much to her and her entire family.

“I think that’s just wonderful,” she said.

Bratton made it well known prior to his passing that he felt the same.

As part of an August 1996 contribution to The Chautauquan Daily, Bratton wrote, “Then I asked myself some other questions: ‘Where do you go for centering? Where is home in the fullest and best sense of that word? Where do I go for nurturing and sustenance? Where are my roots planted?’ So I bought a plot in the Chautauqua Cemetery.”

For the Plotters, like many Chautauquans who have traveled and moved around throughout their lives, Bratton’s sentiment resonates because Chautauqua represents a place of consistency for them. Many have children and grandchildren who frequent Chautauqua, who have grown up here themselves and will continue to visit each summer from wherever they call home.

Although the Plotters will not be buried with the rest of their family members, they will always be connected through Chautauqua.

“We all just felt that maybe this is the final resting place that we’d like — because our kids will always come back here, too, and would visit us,” Small said. “My grandkids go up and visit their grandmother and they love it up there.”

For those interested in making Chautauqua their final resting place, the cemetery has plots available. For all inquiries, including pricing options, contact Dave Beeson at 716-969-4116.

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