History, Headstones, and Helter Skelter

I was tempted to save this memoir for a Halloween blog post, but that might give you the wrong idea about this book written by a “gravedigger’s daughter.” Rachael Hanel, who blogs here, tells the story of growing up in a small town in Minnesota. Her father was a caretaker at the cemeteries, as well as a digger of graves.

The emphasis on cemeteries and graves in the book make their way onto the page of her blog, as well. Very educational and even entertaining to look directly at headstones and death, without flinching. While Hanel’s family story and history is very middle America (and I don’t mean that dismissively–it’s interesting for its specificity), the style she wrote the memoir in deviates from the norm. It is overwhemingly memoir-ish throughout, but also threads through journalistic techniques and in the last portion of the book even becomes more like a lyric essay–lyrical and reflective.


I was stunned to see how many photographs were “allowed” in Hanel’s book. They add a lot, and they made me a little (oddly enough) jealous because I know how difficult it is to get a publisher to agree to using photographs (presumably because of the cost).

As a child, Hanel was interested in violent deaths, even reading Helter Skelter, the story of the Manson murders, at age eleven. This fascination is not surprising given the emphasis in the family on death. Adult reflection tells us she has learned this:

Reading became a protection; the words were a blanket I wrapped tightly around me. The stories helped me prepare for the inevitable. I surrounded myself with these words, reminders that bad things happen to good people. I read somewhere that we are drawn to stories of death and disease to convince ourselves that we would act differently. That somehow, by learning of someone else’s story we can protect ourselves.

I not only agree with these words, but I think they are a main reason I love to read memoirs.


For a related memoir, check out this one.


Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

30 responses to “History, Headstones, and Helter Skelter

  1. Weirdly…this brought to mind my childhood fascination with internal organs. Being raised on a farm, I saw all sorts of animals slaughtered. I was never grossed out. I always wanted to know how these organs worked. Becoming a nurse was one way to find out. I guess what we grow up with has a huge capacity to influence our way of thinking about things.

    • I think you’re right about the impact of our childhood years on our adult interests. My grandmother was raised on a farm and, close as we were, could never understand my relationship with my pets because they never allowed animals inside their house. Speaking of organs and death ;), when our pet rat died, my daughter wanted to see her body (very eager), and my son who is 3.5 years older than his sister, couldn’t stand the idea of looking at her–very upset. Kids are different . . . .

  2. I can’t imagine reading Helter Skelter when I was eleven, I was still afraid of the dark. 🙂 When I first moved to Charlotte, I worked briefly at a cemetery, selling plots, markers, etc.

  3. I read Helter Skelter in my teens and remember being deeply disturbed by it but that didn’t stop me from going on to read a series of books on serial killers…I do like that quote 🙂

    • Hahaha, I love it. I’ve gone through periods where I like to read those books, too. Crime stories. I have my favorites. and not all serial killers, for sure. Murder in Greenwich by Mark Fuhrman was one. Another one was the one about the Preppy Murderer, Robert Chambers.

  4. I love the excerpt from this memoir, Luanne. I Helter Skelter at 11? Wow. nteresting premise, but am not certain I can read it right now.

  5. How interesting! My quirky mother used to take the family on tourist-y visits to graveyards where famous or interesting people (the bride who died on the way to her marriage; gown displayed in glass above the grave…) when I was a child. I was always a little embarrassed –who does that???–but fascinated, too, by the history and the real beauty in graveyards. Looks like a very interesting read, luanne–you find great selections. Thanks!


  6. I love that you read memoirs for fun, Luanne! This one seems like a really unusual story to hear from the perspective of a gravedigger’s daughter. Wow. Very interesting. You are giving me a good list of writers to read if I ever finish what I’m working on now…thanks and have a great weekend!

  7. I love going to very old graveyards, but am not so keen on seeing newer ones. I remember when my grandmother died and my mother wouldn’t let me go to the funeral because I was pregnant and she said the baby might be born with a birthmark on it’s face if I attended. Weird! (some people have very strange ideas about death).

    Thanks for introducing Rachael – I’m heading over to her blog now 😉

    • Dianne, that’s fascinating. What culture is that superstition? I don’t know if it’s a superstition but my parents worried our cat would attack my baby brother and took him (the cat) away one day!

  8. I am always fascinated by walking around cemeteries, Luanne. I imagined the stories of the young people who died, most of all. I felt sad for them but also hopeful, when I would see graves with older ages. Glad that longevity was part of their ‘luck.’ I would find this book to be entertaining, like the ideas you shared about it, too.
    I liked that movie, “My Girl” and “My Girl 2” which had a father who was a mortician and widower. The makeup person, was also a great idea for romance, since they could become a team. This movie duo were watched quite often by my young babysitting group, with no one saying they were afraid of death. The boy who is allergic to bees, scared them more, because they would exclaim (the first time they viewed this), “Oh, I hope he has an Epi pen!” Almost all the kids who went to school, knew someone who had either a grass, pollen, peanuts or bees’ allergy!

    • Robin, I had forgotten that movie! But I did see it. One of the few I’ve seen at a movie theatre 😉 haha. That is really sad, though, about how sensitized the kids are to the allergies. Obviously they are getting so much worse. When my husband was diagnosed a few years ago as a Celiac (allergic to gluten), he was told it’s hereditary. Um, no, it’s not just hereditary. It’s on the increase!

  9. You’ve given me another book to add to the list Luanne, this sounds fascinating.

  10. Oh Luanne, you’ve really grabbed me here, but then you always do that, ha 😉 True crime is my favourite genre, I have read every single one of Anne Rule’s books and I read Helter Skelter when I was a teenager. It fascinated me when, years later and I first visited CA, never thinking in a million years I would end up living there, that I was given a tour of the areas where Manson’s cronies committed their heinous crimes. Then, roll 15 years or so and my ex worked as a correctional officer at the same prison where Tex Watson was imprisoned and some good friends of mine, we discovered, were friends of his who visited him! Can you believe it? I had to cut off my friendship becasue of my ex’s job and the too-close connection which make me very sad at the time but I could understand it. Then, when I met my now lovely hubby, he had his day job in areospace but he used to work at weekends as a stonemason inscribing headstones and setting them in the ground. One of the first things he did when we met was to take me to his grandparent’s graves, buried next to one another in a quiet village cemetery. He had cleaned and reworked their headstones. I thought it was one of the most romantic things he could have done. So all that to say, you can see why I relate so much to Hanel’s memoir and her excellent reasons in her quote why some of us read such stories. Another book to add to the list…oh boy 🙂

    • Sherri, you never cease to amaze me with all your interesting stories and interests! Do you know that every one of your comments is like a mini blog post?! LOVE them. Tex Watson. Oh, what a blast from the past. I thought it was so interesting what Hollis says below, that she remembers where she was and what she was doing when she read the book. It made me stop and think. I honestly don’t remember when or where, but I remember falling so deeply into the book it was as if I was actually living in the book. Is that scary or what? When I did genealogical research I think I discovered (but am not sure) that Leslie Van Houten is a shirt tail relation of mine. It’s hard to tell because I am missing some info, but it looks likely. I love the story of hubby’s grandparents’ headstones. What a lovely gesture.

      • Haha…oh Luanne, I know I do go on a bit don’t I? Your posts fascinate me so I always have so much to say, I can’t stop myself 🙂 Wow, that is something about Leslie Van Houten. I remember as a young teen watching those girls on the news with ‘Charlie’ with their bald heads going into court and being so scared yet also fascinated and I know just what you mean about falling into the book. Yes, that is so interesting what Hollis said. Oh we could talk all day about this couldn’t we… !

  11. I read “Helter Skelter” when I was 26, I think, to help me through a time struggling with commitment! How strange is that!? I was with my serious boyfriend driving along the turquoise waters of the Florida Keys. I read that horribly violent book! I guess in mind, it was to neutralize the good time I was having!

    • Ugh, just had a whole comment here and my computer messed it up. Maybe I am jinxed with commenting! Anyway, I was saying that you really made me stop and think about when I read the book. I completely fell into the book, as if I was living inside of it. Such a vivid reading experience.
      Man, you must have really struggled with commitment to want to dilute that good time in the Keys ;)!!

  12. Luanne I agree she was reading the hard stuff to prepare and protect herself from the worst possible scenario’s that we humans create for ourselves. Living with truths as an undertakers daughter, that most of us barely wish to dwell on. I am sure I would not allow my young daughter to read Helter Skelter at that age though, there is enough violence in everyday life. Thanks for an interesting post, you always have me thinking on a new level. kath.

    • Isn’t that a brilliant comment, though?! There is too much violence every day and today with the internet and so much on TV, Helter Skelter probably wouldn’t even have the impact that it did on earlier generations. My daughter who is in her 20s is very affected by seeing horror movies and true crime stories, but she was pretty addicted to the Jodie Arias trial. But she’s the last generation that grew up without the internet completely taking over.

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