In pursuit of the past


Aundrea Kinney photos/Review • Local historian Janice Quick pours over one of the historic ledgers at Forest Lawn Cemetery, where she conducted much of her research on Mathilde Dike.

The photo titled “Sowing human ashes” and the story titled “Scatters her ashes to four winds of heaven” were printed together in the March 26, 1903, edition of the St. Paul Globe. Janice Quick discovered the article while researching Anthony Ambrosini, who was the superintendent of Forest Lawn Cemetery at the time. She was able to determine through other historical documents that the article listed his first name as “Albert” in error.

Aundrea Kinney/Review • Pictured above is one of the oldest parts of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Maplewood, where local historian Janice Quick believes the remains of Mathilde Dike were likely scattered in 1903.

At the time of Mathilde Dike’s death in 1903, Forest Lawn Cemetery performed about 10 or 12 cremations a year, according to Janice Quick’s research. She explains for comparison that Forest Lawn now performs about 2,100 cremations a year. Having remains scattered was very uncommon in 1903, and Quick notes that although scattering is not unheard of today, Forest Lawn is the only cemetery in Ramsey County to allow scattering ceremonies, although, like anything else, there is a fee to do so.

Local historian uncovers forgotten story of a St. Paul woman.

Just before 70-year-old Mathilde Dike died 115 years ago this spring, she likely thought there was no one left in the world who cared, so she requested her cremated remains be scattered to the wind, something quite radical at the time. 

Her name ran in newspapers multiple times after the scattering, her fifteen minutes of fame coming too late for her to enjoy. Then, for over a century, the world went on without noticing, until local historian Janice Quick discovered by accident a thread of Dike’s story and decided to pull.

Quick first got to know Dike through a 1903 St. Paul Globe article that describes the scattering of Dike’s ashes as “unique services” in what is now Maplewood’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. The article adds, “Most people save the ashes when their friends are cremated, but this is one of the few exceptional cases.”

Cremation alone was rebellious at that time, Quick points out, and although Forest Lawn in Maplewood has had a crematorium since 1897, there were only about 10 or 12 cremations performed each year around the time of Dike’s death.

For comparison, Forest Lawn now performs about 2,100 cremations a year, Quick says, adding that although it is the only cemetery in Ramsey County to allow ash scattering, it is still most common for ashes to be kept in an urn to be cherished by those left behind.

According to the Cremation Association of North America, although the earliest ash scatterings in the country occurred in the late 1800s, they were definitely not typical at the time of Dike’s death.

Quick says she immediately saw the importance of the St. Paul Globe article because she had heard that the first ash scattering Forest Lawn had on record occurred in the 1960s.

“That’s a big discrepancy, so I had to follow it,” she says.

 

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The life and death of Mathilde Dike

The earliest records Quick found about Dike begin when she was living in Faribault with her husband, Maj. William Hammond Dike, who was a banker, celebrated officer in the Civil War and personal secretary to President Lincoln.

They were wealthy until Dike’s husband lost most of their money when he struggled with a prolonged illness that eventually caused his death. Dike then buried him in Faribault next to his first wife, and moved to St. Paul.

Quick learned that although Dike’s closest friends in St. Paul were of a prestigious class — a bank president, a judge and a wealthy socialite — Violet Kittson, the socialite, was known for having a scandalous past, suggesting to Quick that Dike’s friends weren’t the most respectable associates by the standards of the time.

Records of Dike pick up again after her death, with the St. Paul Globe article about the scattering. It notes, “Mrs. Dike, who was in ill health for several months prior to her death, feared that she would be buried alive, so requested her friends to have her body cremated. However, it was not until she was dying that she expressed a desire to have her ashes scattered.”

The article states that the cemetery’s first superintendent, Anthony Ambrosini, scattered Dike’s ashes over two acres of land, and that there was only one witness beyond Ambrosini and the newspaper photographer.

Quick confirms that the detail about the ashes being scattered over two acres appears to be accurate. She says that the cremation technology at the time resulted in about seven pounds of ash from average human remains, though today’s more efficient process leaves only about three and a half pounds of ash remaining.

Quick explains that two acres was almost the entire cemetery that was in use at the time, but if she imagined grabbing handful after handful from a typical five-pound bag of flour, she could see how the ashes could cover quite a large amount of space.

Ambrosini, who was interviewed for the Globe article, said that although he is the superintendent of the crematory, it was his first time experiencing a scattering of ashes. He added that he had heard of it as an ancient Hindu custom, and he suspected that was where Dike had gotten the idea for her ceremony.

Quick says she only stopped researching once she could feel Dike’s emotions as her own, and throughout the process, she came to a different conclusion than Ambrosini about Dike’s motivation.

Quick explains that Dike’s wish for ash scattering was not a symbol of going back to nature, but an act of rebellion and of giving up.

“To say that she wanted her ashes scattered to the wind seemed to be an indication that she was saying, ‘Well to hell with it. Nobody’s claiming to be my family. Everyone’s just kind of thrown me away, so I’m not going to follow that tradition of someone keeping that beautiful urn on the fireplace. Just toss me to the wind and let’s get it over with,’” Quick speculates.

 

The path to discovery

Quick was first put on the path of discovery in 2006 when the cemetery’s superintendent came to a Maplewood Historical Society meeting and pitched the idea of a cemetery tour.

Quick, who had never before been to Forest Lawn, decided to walk the cemetery in search of inspiration. While walking, she noticed an unusual number of hand-carved headstones with Victorian mourning symbols on them. She later discovered that this was partially because Ambrosini opened the cemetery with the hopes of creating an outlet for his stone carving work.

In the end, it was a photo of Ambrosini in the 1903 St. Paul Globe article that lead Quick to Dike’s story.

She searched the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America, an online cache of historic newspapers, to try to find evidence of any other early scattering ceremonies at Forest Lawn, but stumbled upon articles from newspapers in other states detailing Dike’s “peculiar wish.”

Quick explains that if Dike’s scattering was big enough news for other newspapers to print, it must be of some historical importance, though she’s yet to pin down exactly what that is.

“People were shocked that anyone would break with tradition, especially a person of high social status who was expected to set the standard for others,” Quick says, adding, “It turned out [Mathilde Dike] had a pretty interesting life.”



 

The woman behind the research

Janice Quick grew up in what is now the Gladstone neighborhood of Maplewood, and although she is currently a resident of the East Side of St. Paul, she says her heart is still in Maplewood.

Before retiring, Quick worked in the medical field gathering family histories, which turned out to be a career well-suited to her passion for research and her interest in learning about the past.

Her interest in history led to her joining the Maplewood Historic Society in 1999 and the Minnesota Button Society. Her other historic research has focused on Victorian mourning symbols and the Lake Phalen area. 

“She is an excellent researcher who is noted for providing accurate and detailed information,” says Bob Jensen, president of the Maplewood Historical Society, adding that he highly respects her work. 

“Her specialty is local cemeteries and she has given several talks and walking tours of Forest Lawn. She is also knowledgeable on the Lake Phalen area and other St. Paul parks,” he adds.

Quick conducted most of her research on Mathilde Dike at the Minnesota Historical Society and Forest Lawn Cemetery. 

Quick now serves as a special events employee at Forest Lawn, in addition to leading in funeral processions.

 



– Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com

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