Will Garry The Groundhog do for cemeteries what Popeye The Sailor did for spinach and Smokey Bear did for forests?
In most cemeteries, a 6-foot-tall groundhog would be a groundskeeper's nightmare. At Calumet Park Cemetery and Funeral Chapel in Merrillville, Indiana, it's a welcome sight, especially to children. Garry The Groundhog is Calumet's mascot.
A cemetery and funeral home mascot? Did you laugh as you read that? That's the point. Rob Vogel, a fourth-generation Calumet staff member, developed Garry as a friendly face for the cemetery and funeral chapel. People smile when they see Garry, and children who might otherwise find a cemetery scary flock to him.
Groundhog with a purpose
But Garry is not just another furry face; he has experienced loss. Vogel writes about it in "Garry The Groundhog," the first book of a planned series. Garry's grandfather, who used to take him to all the beautiful places in Calumet Park, where the groundhog family has lived for many generations, "went away with the sunset one evening. Mom said he went to a better place where he can always watch out for us."
Garry goes on to say that Grandpa is still with him, that he sees his face as a reflection in the creek or in a cloud. He remembers Grandpa telling him about the cycle of life and about families coming to the cemetery to remember loved ones, to celebrate life.
Vogel uses Garry to provide children with a comforting message the adults in their lives may have trouble conveying at a time of loss. "We often assume that parents have a firm grasp on helping kids to deal with grief," Vogel said, "but our experience has shown that's often not true.
"Children can be dramatically affected by grief after the loss of a loved one. Sometimes they withdraw from their family, as well as from activities at school and with their friends. They can lose their sense of emotional safety.
"I practically grew up in a cemetery, my parents and grandparents worked in the profession, and yet—I was surprised to learn—my grandparents kept my dad from going to funerals involving family and close friends.
"I'm a dad myself now, and I'm close to my son. If I were to die today, I wouldn't want him to be afraid to go to my funeral."
Vogel hopes Garry's story will introduce cemeteries and funeral homes to children in a non-threatening way, as well as let children who have lost someone know ''that they are not alone in their feelings," Vogel said.
The story ends with a subtle uplifting note as Garry says that "groundhogs burrow in the ground but will always come out to see the light."
The book—and DVD and CD—are aimed at all children, not just those facing a loss. "Kids love the character and have fun simply listening to stories," Vogel said.
Each page is colorfully illustrated by Max Azarov of Gary, Indiana, who also designed the Garry the Groundhog Web site and handles distribution of the books.
Garry going global?
The rodent's love for cemeteries is one reason Vogel made Garry a groundhog—also known as a woodchuck, marmot, gopher or whistle pig. Vogel and Azarov think Garry would make a great mascot for cemeteries just about anywhere.
The groundhog is a North American native, but burrowing animals of some kind and cemeteries seem to go together.
"Ninety percent of the cemeteries across the country are home to groundhogs or close relatives," Vogel said.
Vogel has already been approached about a franchise deal but for now is concentrating on helping Garry spread his message beyond Merrillville via his Web site, books (for sale via the Web site and at bookstores) and a cartoon under development.
"We're still working out all the details for national exposure. It's a step-by-step process," Vogel said. One way or the other, he promised, "Garry will be helping children. There is a need for Garry."
School counselors have started adopting the book to use, Vogel said.
Meanwhile, Garry has his paws full in Merrillville. Calumet's children's room has a Garry theme, with Garry posters on the wall, a stuffed groundhog among the toys and, of course, Garry books for the children to read.
Garry welcomes people to Calumet for special events. On Mother's Day, he handed out flowers. He helped Scouts and other children place American flags on grave for Memorial Day. He'll help out at the "fishing for memories" contest.
Garry has already been profiled on the front of the Merrillville Post- Tribune's ''Neighbors in Business" section in a story titled "Never fear, Garry's here. 'Groundhog' makes cemetery less scary for kids." Garry also threw the first pitch to open Little League season.
Garry will participate in parades, and he's planning visits to hospitals, day care centers, schools, bookstores and other cemeteries and funeral homes, where he will read his book and play his songs.
Yes, Garry writes not only stories (with help from Vogel), but also songs (with help from Azarov). Each book comes with a DVD of Vogel reading his story and Azarov singing the Garry The Groundhog song.
The song does not mention the cemetery; it's simply a catchy tune about being a friend to everyone.
Listening to the chorus—"I'm Garry The Groundhog; I'm easy to love and hug; I'm Garry the Groundhog"—you can easily envision a group of 3-to-6-year olds singing along at the top of their lungs.
Garry's adventure will continue through a series of books, Vogel said. ''He'll tell stories about his grandpa, his friends and a veteran. He'll tell about the time he lost his pet caterpillar, Rocky, and the time he fell in love."
Garry The Groundhog: Coming soon to your cemetery, a cemetery near you and/or your television screen.