The Cemetery Man
Matawan resident shares his undying passion
Sitting in his living room, with old copies of the Matawan Journal and bits of historical information strewn about, Al Savolaine recalls an experience from college he will never forget.
As an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College, he often stood at the same spot that Abraham Lincoln did when delivering the Gettysburg Address and reinvisioned the event.
"I would close my eyes and I would imagine that I could hear the people and I had the feeling that Lincoln was close by, delivering his address" he said, his eyes fluttering closed in a reminiscent manner. "It was great for a history buff."
But Savolaine is more than just your local history buff, he has a passion for cemeteries and the stories that live on there.
"One of the best places to visit if you're interested in local history is the cemetery. You have all the stories of individuals and especially in a small town like Matawan, it can be a very interesting hobby," Savolaine said. "You can go out and read about history and have a ball," he added with a smile.
This passion has led Savolaine all around the world, from cemeteries right here like Rose Hill Cemetery and Arlington Cemetery to King Tut's Tomb in Egypt, the catacombs in Italy and Rome and his personal favorite, the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
The Cemetery Man has more than earned his nickname, which actually came about from an acquaintance and just seemed to stick. According to Savolaine, he went on a quick errand one day and ended up spending a few hours chatting with someone about cemeteries.
"I saw him the next day and I asked him, 'Do you remember me?' He says, 'Oh yea, I remember you' but he couldn't remember my name. He goes, 'You're the cemetery man,'" Savolaine said with a chuckle.
Cemeteries and history are a way of life for Savolaine, a long time resident of Matawan and member of the Matawan Historical Society.
In fact, the history of cemeteries fascinates Savolaine as well. According to him, people used to be buried in church yards. As the yards became more crowded, cemeteries were designed at the outskirts of towns. They became the first state parks with their winding roads, shady trees and ponds, Salvolaine said. People used to picnic and take walks through the cemeteries, enjoying their scenery and the fresh outdoors.
Savolaine, who is now retired, was a history teacher and then a middle school principal in Tinton Falls. Now Savolaine dedicates a large portion of his time to researching the borough's history and pouring over old news publications.
"Sometimes I get addicted to reading the Matawan Journals. All of a sudden three or four hours will have gone by and my wife will come in and remind me, 'Come on, go do something else,'" he said.
His favorite part of the Journal to read? The obituaries. He has found that obituaries used to be two to three columns long and include intricate details about the person's life and the circumstances surrounding their death, offering a peak into that point in history.
He is also a member of the borough's Historic Sites Commission, a member of the Rose Hill Cemetery Board, and a docent, or tour guide, at the borough's mansion.
"The one thing Matawan has going for it, is history," Savolaine said. "The town was founded in 1686 and it goes way back, as far as New Jersey is concerned."
Savolaine hopes that more people will take interest in cemeteries, and visit Rose Hill Cemetery as people did when it was first created. With knowledge comes respect he says, which he hopes will lead to less vandalism there.
"By being a history buff, there's a lot you can take pride of in your town," he said.