A Long Stroll Through Avoca Cemetery—An actuarial study … and a few meditations and meanderings

By Kevin Wolf

I’ve been giving talks every May for the past five years to a group of my friends and some senior citizens. I haven’t given a talk on an actuarial topic to this group before, so I decided it was time to do so—but what topic? I decided to research and discuss the Avoca Cemetery in Oakfield, Wisc., for several reasons. This project provided a remembrance to my parents-in-law, who were buried there; it satisfied my curiosity about cemeteries; and it allowed me to do some actuarial exercises, including developing mortality probability distributions.

For family and friends, a cemetery provides a place to go to connect in their own way with those they knew. The more I looked around the Avoca Cemetery, the more I wanted to learn about other people buried there. I gathered information from the gravestones, received a history of the cemetery, looked at some public records of news articles and obituaries, and did some research on the internet. The readable gravestones had information about the deceased, especially their birth and death date. They showed stories, including symbols representing activities that were important to them, or words that comforted them or their families. Some gravestones identified relationships with others buried nearby.

The Avoca Cemetery is about 8 miles from Fond du Lac, Wisc. My wife, Mary Gau, and I took a break from a family reunion in September 2017 and spent two days photographing the gravestones—we may have missed some, but our goal was to capture them all. I gathered information from readable gravestones in the cemetery. I found that the average lifespan (or life expectancy) from birth to death was 64.3 years. The earliest birth year was Hanna Bull in about 1772 (the gravestone read “Died Mar. 18, 1861 [AG]E. 88 ys. 7 ms.”). The oldest person buried was Martha Hodge Blaeser (1882-1988) who died at about age 106. The longest marriage, with known wedding date, was over 74 years between Bennett and Ethel Bird from Sept. 19, 1923. through Ethel’s death in 1998. My results came from about 2,100 gravestones and 2,850 people buried there. I used the information on the gravestones to develop mortality tables and life expectancies.

Actuarial Analysis and Other Statistics

I had to make some assumptions. I excluded unreadable stones. I assumed a July 1 birth or death date if only the year was provided; the error was ± 1 year from this assumption (e.g., if actual birth was Dec. 31 and actual death was Jan. 1, I would be too high by almost 1 year). Because the error is positive and negative, I would think it would likely balance out. I assumed mid-month to complete a date, if the rest of the date was known. There were a few gravestones where the birth and death dates were readable but the names weren’t, so the gender was left blank. Otherwise, the gender was based on the first name or other relationship information (e.g., wife, father, etc.). I excluded stones for those still living or otherwise incomplete birth and death years. I used age last birthday for the mortality tables. Marriages were sometimes highlighted with a marriage date. Other times, based on maiden name, the birth and/or death years on a gravestone, I assumed that two people etched in the same or nearby stones were married. Ninety-seven gravestones used the phrase “his wife” or “wife of” without its counterpart “her husband” or “husband of.”

Avoca Cemetery’s life expectancies and the number of people by gender are given in Table 1 for those who died before 1900, died between 1900 and 1950, and died 1950 and after. AAD means average age at death.

Table 2 provides national life expectancies for comparison. The source for 1850 was Massachusetts only;[i] for 1900 onward I used the U.S. population.[ii]

The life expectancies at the Avoca Cemetery were in line with national amounts for all time periods except those who died before 1900. For those dying before 1900, Avoca’s life expectancies were slightly below the national average for 1850, and we might have expected them to be between the 1850 and 1900 national life expectancies. I speculate there were two reasons for this trend: First, the sample size for Avoca was very small (about 170 people), so non-randomness occurred; and second, there might have been epidemiological reasons, beyond the scope of this article, that could have caused central Wisconsin to have worse mortality than Massachusetts (the source for the 1850 “national” life expectancy).

Table 3 shows the life expectancies of those who married vs. those who didn’t marry. In looking at the married/unmarried expectancies, a fallacy or bias error would occur if I measured everyone’s lifetime from birth; then married people would always live longer than everyone else. The reason for the error would be because married people would be assured to live at least until the age at which their marriage began. Therefore, married people would likely not begin to die before age 20 or so, while the general population could die at younger ages. For a less biased conclusion, I eliminated those who died before age 20.

I compared Avoca Cemetery’s cumulative probability distribution for death (i.e., mortality) to that of the current national mortality distribution in Graph 1. Avoca’s mortality excluded the graves of unknown gender. As expected, Avoca Cemetery males died at younger ages than females (except under age 20) and both died at younger ages than current national mortality levels. Current national mortality came from the Social Security Administration’s 2014 mortality distribution.

Graph 2 compares Avoca’s cumulative mortality distribution based on when the death occurred (i.e., before 1900, 1900-1949, and 1950 and after). As expected, Avoca’s deaths occurred at much younger ages for those who died further in the past than those who died more recently.

The Appendix provides the Avoca Cemetery’s age last birthday distributions at death for readable gravestones with complete birth/death information. These distributions were used to develop graphs 1 and 2.

Finally, I’m suggesting that other actuaries or actuarial students may wish to study mortality experience from other cemeteries—perhaps a new source of information could be added to the historical record of communities throughout the world. The more I looked, the more I found at the Avoca Cemetery.

Marie and Elmer Gau
On Aug. 13, 2016, at age 91, my mother-in-law, Marie Gau, died two weeks after her birthday (born July 31, 1925). She was buried next to her husband, Elmer, of 45 years. Elmer was born July 10, 1917, and died June 26, 1992—two weeks short of his 75th birthday. They both lived longer than the average lifespan of those buried in the cemetery.
The Avoca Cemetery

According to the Avoca Cemetery’s history, provided by current cemetery Secretary/Treasurer Etta Held, the cemetery grounds were initially given by Isaac Orvis “in about 1846.” I found 10 Orvis family graves, but not Isaac’s, so either his gravestone was worn away from weather to become unreadable or we accidentally missed it. According to Held, many of the older, unreadable gravestones were limestone, a much softer material than the more recent metal plaques or granite/marble stones. One sign in the cemetery indicated it opened in 1843. According to the history, the first two unnamed people were buried there in about 1848; they had died of smallpox. We didn’t find their gravestones.

When the cemetery opened, a child’s plot cost $8.50 and an adult’s was $12.50. In 2018, a single plot costs $375. The typical plot size was three feet wide and eight feet long with a hole dug five feet deep. In the winters before burial was possible, the ground was thawed with burning coals placed there overnight.

Isaac Orvis had been postmaster at Avoca, a parcel of Oakfield, Wisc. The cemetery is now the only land that carries the name Avoca, the post office having been closed in 1854. The name originated in the poem The Meeting of the Waters by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) from a visit with friends to the Avoca River in County Wicklow, Ireland. The last stanza reads:

Sweet vale of Avoca! How calm could I rest

In the bosom of shade, with the friends I love best,

Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,

And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.

The cemetery has grown since those early days. When we visited, the cemetery had 13 acres and perhaps one-third to half the space was filled with graves, structures, or roadway. We photographed about 2,100 gravestones with 2,850 individual graves. About 170 had limestone gravestones that had worn away with no words or numbers visible. There were another 170 gravestones that were only partially readable, with some or all of the birth and/or death years unknown. Some had partial names and some only carried a title like “mother,” “father,” “daughter,” etc. Many of the graves, if readable, only provided the birth and death year (1,600/2,500 = 64 percent) and did not include the month or day.

Sadness in the Cemetery
The emotion I most connect with cemeteries is sadness. For me, sadness was most apparent in Avoca with the many gravestones for infants who died at birth and two particular graves. These gravestones were nearly cube-shaped, connected by a stone bridge between them. I was curious about these graves because they were teenagers who both died in 1970, according to the gravestones. The graves were for Mary Kay Kolterman and Daniel Lee Stenz. A news article and their obituaries published in the Fond du Lac Reporter the day after their deaths explained that Kolterman was born April 23, 1952, and Stenz on Dec. 26, 1951. They were in a car accident and died within hours of each other on Dec. 29, 1970. The front-page article began, “Two area teen-agers [in the same car] were killed in a two-car crash at County Trunks Y and F, about one mile south of Oakfield, late Tuesday afternoon.” Stenz was 19 and Kolterman was 18; both were in college. According to my sister-in-law Joan Gau’s recollections, Kolterman and Stenz met in high school, had been engaged, and were looking for a reception hall at the time of the accident. Written on the bridge between their gravestones was: “Together Forever” with linked hearts.From readable gravestones, there were about 60 infants who died at birth. For example, Lucille Warnke’s (1896–1937) gravestone gave her name “And Infant Son 1937.” That probably meant that she died while giving birth along with her unnamed son.

Most of the worn-away limestones (160 of 170) were small, perhaps 6 inches on a side, some with rounded tops, and likely were for infants who died at birth. The other 10 limestones were larger gravestones. Readable infant stones might include an image of a toddler’s shoes, a dove or a lamb; the latter for Crystal Marie (April 8, 1965) and Chris Mary (April 23, 1968) Guell. Another stone provided no names or years, just “Twin Babies” Walters. Assuming the small white stones were infants, then there were about 220 infants, almost 8 percent (220/2,850) of the total, buried in the Avoca Cemetery.

Like many cemeteries Avoca showed signs of visitors with flowers, wreaths, flags, and mementos left at various graves.

Wit and Other Personal Touches in the Cemetery
When I was a child, I used to read every Ripley’s Believe It or Not book that I could get my hands on. Each of those books had many types of weird wonders, often with a hand-drawn image. One common trope was gravestone images with humorous epitaphs. In the Avoca Cemetery, several gravestones showed a lighter side. On Wilbur A. Guelzow’s (5/11/1919–8/25/1984) stone was written “Gone Fishing.” Irene (1929–2015) & Herbert (1928–1999) Shady have a World Series Cubs (2016) card planted in the ground in front of their stone. Leroy Franke (10/12/1934–7/16/2009) had a Cubs icon on his gravestone.In cribbage, each hand is made up of five cards, including an exposed card for all players to use. Five cards were etched in Betty (10/5/1928–6/21/2013) and Kenneth (7/15/1928–3/27/2014) Weise’s gravestone: four fives and a Jack of hearts. This hand, if the Jack was “nobs,” is the highest hand in a cribbage game; it’s worth 29 points (four of a kind (12 points); 15 count eight times (16 points); plus nobs (1 point)).

Gravestones showed images of a car, farm, forest scene with deer, airplane, cat, fisherman in a boat, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” tractor, cow, truck, flowers, birds, nicknames, maiden name, terms of endearment (like “Unkie”), horse, Mercedes Benz logo, basketball & hoop, flag, baseball diamond, McDonald’s logo, music bar, medical icon (Rod of Asclepius with mirrored snakes) on a surgeon’s grave, and an organ donor medallion.

Forest Burt Sharp’s (1/14/1926–9/10/2008) stone included an etched image of a large dog with the epitaph “Coco Too July 10, 1993–Nov. 15, 2002.” Etta Held indicated there was no dog buried there.

I couldn’t stop myself from noticing that there were some puzzling years on some graves—meaning I could make a math puzzle from them. I noticed some stones had the same four digits in the birth and death years (e.g. Lena Patchett 1892-1982). The puzzle in this case could be: What were the birth and death years under these conditions? First, the woman was born in the 1800s; second, she lived to age 90; third, her birth and death years had the first prime number for remainder when divided by 9; and fourth, her birth and death years had the same digits. Another same-digits puzzle: What’s the longest number of years that could occur from the earliest birth year in the Avoca Cemetery (i.e., 1772) to 2017, when we collected the grave data? My answer is 198 (either 1789-1987 or 1799-1997) years. Is longer possible?

Gravestones & Nonreligious Epitaphs
The gravestones in the cemetery had various shapes and sizes; varied as to how many people were mentioned on a single stone; and had varying nonreligious epitaphs. Shapes of stones included a large teardrop, tree stumps, spires, long rectangles, tubes on their side, and many other shapes. Some old graves provided only a death date and how old the person was at death, such as John Windecker, died Aug. 15, 1883, aged “61 Ys 4 mos 15 ds.”The tree stump stones may have been related to the fraternal benefit organization Woodmen of the World, whose members had insurance coverage for a stump gravestone, according to the website Historic Houston. However, most Avoca tree stump stones were small and unlabeled—no names or dates; one had the surname (?) initial “H.” Not shaped like a tree stump was E. Addison’s (died March 8, 1895, “Aged 36 Years”) gravestone. On that gravestone appeared “M. W. A.” surrounding an axe, sledgehammer, and chisel. The MWA stood for Modern Woodmen of America, which according to a post on the blog “A Grave Interest”  on March 30, 2018, “When first founded, modern woodmen were white men between ages of 18 and 45, from rural Midwestern states.” Furthermore, Joseph Cullen founded the MWA in 1883 Lyons, Iowa, as “a society that would bind in one association, the Jew and the Gentile, the Catholic, and the Protestant, the Agnostic and the Atheist” to provide insurance coverage for the death of a husband or father.

The most people (surname Hall) with birth and death years identified on a single gravestone were eight, including three adults that lived to at least age 37 and five children that lived three years or less. Some stones included “parents of” with the names of their children. Some stones had room for more names in otherwise blank regions. Others gave incomplete dates because the person’s death hadn’t yet occurred. (That was the case for Marie Gau between Elmer’s death in 1992 until her own in 2016.) On at least two graves was written a German epitaph (“Ruhe Sanft”—rest gently).

Joyce (1923–2015) & James (1922–1994) Meyer’s stone had The Izaak Walton League of America Inc.’s icon on it. The League began “in 1922 to conserve outdoor America for future generations” by anglers (fishing) and named after Isaak Walton the 17th century author of The Compleat Angler.

Hobart Howland’s (1835–1903) stone epitaph was: Descendant of John Howland of the Mayflower. Looking up John Howland at MayflowerHistory.com, I found, “He came as a manservant of [Plymouth Colony] Governor Carver … [and] Howland fell overboard [from the 1620 Mayflower] during a storm, and was almost lost at sea—but luckily for his millions of descendants living today (including Presidents George Bush & George W. Bush, and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt [and Hobart]) he managed to grab hold of the topsail halyards, giving the crew enough time to rescue him with a boat hook.”

Military Service
There were 147 people interred who had some indication of military service. On the back of the gravestone they often had a metal plaque with their name, rank, service branch, and war they participated in. The plaque usually had complete birth and death dates, while the gravestone front might have only had birth and death years. Sometimes there was a military medallion on a post in front of the grave without additional information. The Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korean conflict and Vietnam were all represented, as were Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.An example from the Civil War was George Benedict (1844–1906) in the 6th Battalion, Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry regiment. One of the few women who served in the military (at least according to their gravestones) was in three wars or conflicts. That was Marjorie Erdmann (11/8/1919–5/6/1982), who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam and had the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. I found no others in the Avoca Cemetery who served in as many or more wars or conflicts.
Religion and Related Symbols
If there were religious symbols on a grave they were likely Christian ones. I didn’t find any Jewish, Islamic, or other non-Christian religious symbols; except two graves had Native-American dream catchers etched in the stone. And provided later, there was a Hopi prayer on the back of one gravestone. About 69 percent of the readable graves (1,730/2,500) had no religious symbol on the gravestone.The religious symbols on the readable stones included praying hands or a hand pointing upward (33); crosses (497); Bible (19); religious words (12); or a combination, often a symbol plus words (76).

One stone had two nonspecific sectarian orders etched in it—a three-link chain, which were Symbols of Order of the Odd Fellows for Abel Bristol (1884–1972) and Daughters of Rebekah for Evaline Bristol (1887–1969). The International Order of Odd Fellows began in the 18th century and was “composed of [people] believing in a supreme being … Friendship, Love and Truth are basic guidelines we need to follow in our daily lives.” Those three basic guidelines were symbolized by the chain links. The “Odd Fellows” were for the male members, while “Rebekahs” were the female members.

There were 19 graves that had the square and compass often with a “G” in the middle—a male Freemason symbol. Twelve of those graves had a spouse with the Order of the Eastern Star (five-pointed) female Freemason symbol. Freemasons were a secret order connected to the Holy Grail. Though not shown in the Avoca Cemetery, sometimes the five-pointed stars in other cemeteries have the letters FATAL between the points and symbols within the five points for biblical women: Adah, Ruth, Esther, Martha, and Electa. Those letters stood for Fairest Among Ten-thousand, Altogether Lovely.

Patricia (b. 1934) & Foster (b. 1931) Wagenknecht—both still alive—had the epitaph “Was ist gut ist Erde. Was ist besser ist Himmel” Translation: What is good is earth. What is better is heaven [or the sky].

On the back of Dawn (b. 1965) and Anthony (1965–2000) Uttendorfer’s stone was this Hopi prayer:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there. I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow

I am the diamond glints on snow

I am the sunlight on the opened grain

I am the gentle Autumn’s rain

When you awaken in the morning hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush

of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there. I did not die.


KEVIN WOLF, MAAA, FSA, is a consulting actuary with Kevin Wolf & Associates, LLC in Chicago.


[i] White and nonwhite persons combined, the latter making up less than 1 percent of the total. U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States.

[ii] National Center for Health Statistics; Chartbook on Long-term Trends in Health; 2017.

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