Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fred Gwynne- Sandy Mount United Methodist Churchyard

If I played a clip, I’m pretty sure that you would recognize his distinctive bass-baritone voice. Most of us know him as the lovable Herman Munster from The Munsters or even his later role as the endearing and knowledgeable neighbor in Pet Sematary. When I posted where I was going, my brother immediately dropped lines from My Cousin Vinny. Fred Gwynne was an American actor who passed just shy of his 67th birthday in 1993. 

When I learned that Gwynne was buried in an unmarked grave in Finksburg, Maryland, I figured that I would be taking a journey to his graveside this summer alone. It’s probably important to note right here that I don’t get googlie-eyed over celebrity. In fact when I hear the term “Hollywood Actor”, I usually tune out. So, I’m not necessarily making it a goal to visit actors’ resting places. But there are a few actors who mean something to me; and, Mr. Gwynne is certainly one of them.

Gwynne is buried at Sandy Mount United Methodist Church cemetery which is behind the church. Sandy Mount church has a long history and I was fortunate enough to find the paperwork for the historic listing and even the nomination for location to be added to the National Historic Places listing. There is a deed from September 28, 1827 that shows that the land was conveyed from Allen Baker to five trustees under the condition that they must erect a house of worship. In 1855 there was a controversy about whether or not to allow enslaved Africans to worship with their “masters”. The church remained divided and part of the congregation moved to another location and began Pleasant Grove Methodist Episcopal Church… that is, until 1943 when they were again reunited. In 1867, three stone masons by the names of Ward, Bush and Shipley who had built the Pleasant Grove church, built Sandy Grove’s stone sanctuary which currently isn’t being used by the church except for special occasions. There is even a legend that because the three men had gone out drinking the front walls appear slightly irregular. It would be fascinating to find more information about the cemetery itself but what I have discovered has been quite limited. Although it isn’t very big, there are some old gravestones.

When I was doing research for the journey, I didn’t expect that most people would want to visit a grave without even a marker. Of course, my friends are not *most people* so it turns out that once Jade and I went, a few friends were very excited about the adventure (and perhaps a bit disappointed they didn’t get to come along).  

Why Gwynne’s remains rest in an unmarked grave isn’t quite clear. As far as I can tell, at the end of his life Gwynne wanted to be Fred Gwynne the man and not Fred Gwynne the actor. In an article in Harvard’s The Crimson (2001), it reports that his daughter Madyn Gwynne reveals, "He was a far more complex character than the one he played on The Munsters." Of course he was! Gwynne studied portrait-painting before enlisting in the Navy in World War II. He served as a radio operator in a submarine-chasing vessel. After serving, he attended the New York Phoenix School of Design, and Harvard University. I was excited to learn that Gwynne was also a children’s author including It's Easy to See Why, A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, The King Who Rained, Best In Show, Pondlarker, The Battle of the Frogs and Mice, and A Little Pigeon Toad.

While he may have tried to distance himself from roles that rhymed his Herman Munster character, during a 1982 interview, a reporter asked about his favourite roles. Gwynne noted plays and then he paused... "and I might as well tell you the truth, I love old Herman Munster.  Much as I try not to, I can't stop liking that fellow."  

Soon before Gwynne passed, he and his wife bought land in Taneytown, Maryland which is Northeast of Baltimore. During that time, he only worked as a voice-over artist in commercials. Within a year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When he passed away from complications associated with pancreatic cancer, he was buried in Sandy Mount Cemetery in Finksburg, MD.  His funeral was private and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Thanks to which pointed me in the direction of Tod Benoit’s book, I was able to find the location and a picture of Gwynne’s grave that is mapped out with the description, “Approximate yet accurate location of Fred Gwynne's final resting place at Sandymount Methodist.”

Walk into the cemetery behind the church and near the back is a distinctive Shannon stone. About twenty feet in front and to the left of the Shannon stone, Fred is buried in a grave that, but for the grass covering it, has no marking of any kind." (Where Are they Buried?, Tod Benoit, p.179)

In 2015, when Jade from Daughter of the Jaded Era and I were planning our Blogger Meet Up Adventures Part 2, I knew that I didn’t want her to have to run through a snowy DC again. She also had only seen a small part of the U.S. so I suggested taking the journey together. We headed out on Thursday which was a pretty beautiful day to be in a cemetery. GPS made it fairly simple to find the cemetery. We picked up flowers at a grocery since we couldn’t find a local florist and located Gwynne's location. There were numerous old graves that could use a bit of restoration in the cemetery on the side of the church. The cemetery includes obelisks and other traditional turn-of-the-century markers. The Rush stone was near the parking lot. I thought it was a stunning example of craftsmanship. Gwynne's plot is located in the back of the cemetery in a section that appears much more modern. Most of the cemeteries that I visit are quite wooded. At Sandy Mount, one can stand near Gwynne's resting place and see for what seems like miles. In the distance there is even a windmill. Not a bad place to spend forever if you ask me. 

Of course, neither of us ever knew Fred-Gwynne-the-man so we can only discuss the characters he played… and naturally, the character of Herman Munster sticks with us. I think it’s easy to start comparing The Addams Family and The Munsters. Both series aired from 1964-1966. When Jade and I were standing graveside, she even mentioned this. At the time she stated and then later noted in her post that the family of The Munsters was a bit dysfunctional. At the time I wasn’t quite sure why I felt the urge to defend these characters. This week has been filled with so much activity that I’m finding myself slowly processing; trying to grasp each reflection has been like grabbing a cloud. I’ve always been much more connected to The Munsters than The Addams Family. This could be because The Munsters were aired as reruns right after school so I grew up watching these old episodes. I think what connected me to the Munster family was their working-class roots. The Addams always appeared to be independently wealthy while Herman Munster with his enormous lunch box had to go off to work at the funeral home. He even started out as the “nail boy” working his way up through the business. And, viewers learn that he used to be in the army and fought in WWII. In many ways, the characters come across as a typical American family and Mr. Munster is (at least stereotypically) the all-American Dad who is a bit childlike but who always means well. So many of the episodes followed the formula of *fitting in* and blending…immigrants coming to America and living the American dream in an old house that they thought was just right (albeit dusty and dilapidated just like our own homes). I guess I connect because The Munsters story is my story in many ways. My family immigrated and they always thought they blended in even when their Polish roots stuck out… but just like the Munster family, they didn’t mind. They loved being themselves and they loved being here.  

So while Mr. Gwynne and his family wish to keep his resting place quiet, visiting a grave is a way to pay our respects, to say “Thank You!”, and to connect to someone who made a difference in our lives.  
This was only the first stop in our adventures of the day and I will write more about our other adventures that afternoon and the next day in later posts. Jade has already mentioned the "spirited" self-guided Ghost Tour  that we took so you'll want to visit her post to read about that. I really wish we had videotaped ourselves giving the tour... but I'll write more about that later.
After two days of gothy fun with Jade, I turned around and headed to Hollywood Cemetery's Rose Pruning Work Day
to volunteer and reconnect with Connie. Today I'm still scratched, achy, and bruised... but let me just say that being in a group with THE Woman In Charge was super awesome! And, dare I write that we worked on some of the best roses in Hollywood?!? One was the famous Crenshaw Rosa Moschata (Musk Rose) which is a historically significant rose that I wrote about in my guest blog post for The Cemetery Researcher More tales soon!

No comments:

Post a Comment