Rest in peace

Astronomers are normally very dedicated to their work, and many an astronomer spend an entire lifetime unravelling the mysteries of the Universe. When they pass away, some desire to be buried at the places where they lived their lives, rather than in an anonymous cemetery somewhere.

When the new Allegheny Observatory was built, a storage vault was constructed in the pier of the middle sized telescope. This area is one floor below the main basement and it was quickly decided that it was much too damp to store anything of value.

James Keeler, who was the second director of the Allegheny Observatory had left to be the director of the Lick Observatory right before construction began on the new Allegheny Observatory. Unfortunately Keeler died in 1900 at the young age of 43.  Keeler’s widow wanted to have her husbands remains interred at the Lick Observatory but James Lick was already buried there.  The University of California Board of Regents decided that “The great telescope should stand sentinel over James Lick’s body alone.”

John Brashear, who was busily constructing Allegheny Observatory, then decided to make the storage area under the pier into an ornate crypt.  James Keeler was the first person interred at the Observatory crypt in 1906, but not the only one. He was followed by John Brashear himself and his wife Phoebe, who are together in the same burial urn.  James Keeler‘s son Henry died at the very young age of 25, he was buried in the same notch as his father in 1918. James Keeler‘s widow lived until 1944, she died in Arkansas Kansas and was buried all by herself.  Her great, great grandson found her remains and brought her to the Observatory to be reunited with her husband and son on April 15th, 2007.

Allegheny Observatory is not the only observatory to double as a burial ground for astronomers. In Australia, the astronomer Walter G. Duffield was instrumental in the decision to build a solar observatory on the top of Mount Stromlo, called the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, on the site that today hosts the Mount Stromlo Observatory.

Duffield was appointed first director of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory in January 1924, but as a chronic asthmatic, he died of pneumonia on 1 August 1929 at Mount Stromlo while work was still in the preliminary stages. After his death he was put to rest on the western slopes of Mount Stromlo, from which he is overlooking the observatory. His grave is only a short walk from today’s observatory site.

Also Percival Lowell, the founder of the Lowell Observatory, is buried on Mars Hill, near the observatory he helped construct.

No doubt there are more astronomers sleeping the long sleep at other observatories around the world. Here, they can forever watch over the buildings they helped construct, and follow how we keep pushing the boundaries of our knowledge, building on their pioneering work.

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