Mortuary science professor Jeff Zealley at the American Cemetery, but not to rest

356

Nathan Wilson | Reporter

A traveler arrived in Natchitoches recently with an unusual hobby: cleaning years of accumulated grime from the surfaces of tombstones lining the paths of the American Cemetery. Jeff Zealley is a taphophile, interested in gravestones, mausoleums and other monuments to the deceased. “I am an avid tombstone tourist,” he says. “I don’t know about obsessed, maybe possessed in this case,” he jokes. His avocation complements his work; he’s an assistant professor at Salt Lake Community College in Utah where he teaches classes in mortuary science and medical ethics. He’s also a funeral director, though he’s stepped back from the day-to-day operations of the funeral home he owns.
Zealley explains why he loves cemeteries. “I’ve been to hundreds of cemeteries throughout the US and Europe. Anytime I travel I also look up a cemetery and see if I can find at least one or a few to visit.” He takes photos of some of the headstones as he works to document before and after and reveal the fruits of his labor. Zealley steps back to survey his work. “Ok, now we know who’s there, because otherwise it’s kind of like they’re lost,” he remarks. “Doing this, all kinds of things started showing up.”

This article published in the March 31, 2022, print edition

His efforts will yield long-term results too; the D2 solution he sprays on the headstones cleans them gradually. “We won’t see a huge difference right now, but it continues to work,” he says “Come back in July, August, October, this will look even cleaner than it does today.” He makes it clear he’s not in Natchitoches to hurry. “Morticians are very patient you know, we get everybody sometime,” he jokes.
Zealley reveals that he first came to Louisiana as a teenager. “We moved from San Diego to Pineville, so that was culture shock definitely for me,” he says. His family only lived in Louisiana for two years before resettling in Montana, but decades later he returned. “I’m on what’s called DMORT, Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team,” he says. “So I spent a total of four months down in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina helping with the recovery and identification of storm victims and also caskets that were displaced.” During that trip, he found he had a renewed interest in the state. “That’s when I fell in love again with Louisiana, especially the food. We don’t have good food in Utah I tell people,” he says. “Nobody up there even knows what boudin is.”
Now Zealley works to relax, enjoy the ambiance and take pictures of any headstones that catch his eye. “Some people are interested in dates and the who’s who. I just like what’s kind of unusual or unique.” He explains his fascination with cemeteries. “Cemeteries to me are outdoor art museums.” Expounding on his hobby, he becomes sentimental. “This is what’s left of us to tell the world we were here. If you’re rich and famous then you’re in the history book or something, but other than that, usually your headstone is it.”
Zealley enjoys returning for vacation trips, and he plans to bring others with him next time as part of his work. “I love Louisiana so much, that I created a class at the college where I teach called Taste of Louisiana, and it’s just to give them a little smattering of things about Louisiana: history, music, culture, food, cemeteries,” he said. “This will be the first summer I teach that, and as part of the class, we’ll come down here for a week and tour around different parts of the state.” He explains why Natchitoches and the American Cemetery are worth visiting with his students. “Natchitoches is famous for its history. It’s the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase, so that certainly merits attention.”