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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Graveyard as Teacher

Cemetery on the Isle of Shoals, 8 miles off the coast of New Hampshire/Maine

Small cemetery, Round Pond, Maine
Some people have difficulty walking past an obviously old graveyard without taking a closer look.  I know because I am one of them.  No matter where I travel in the world, I am on the lookout for very old burial grounds.  

The body of John Paul Jones lies in a crypt, Naval
Academy, Annapolis, Maryland
There is history to be learned in visiting graveyards, whether it’s in Salem, New Orleans, Down East Maine, Memphis, the Bahamas,  Ireland or Russia. I’d like to share something about some of the most memorable “classrooms” in my travels.

Fredericksburg Cemetery, filled with the soldiers killed there in 1862
Wars have, of course, filled the largest cemeteries in our country as well as in others.  When I was an undergraduate at UW-La Crosse, I went on a brief study-abroad trip with 235 other UW students.  We visited three cities in the Soviet Union.  
Salem, Massachusetts.  Of the 19 souls found
guilty of witchcraft, two were men.

Two were pressed (crushed) to death by piling
rocks.  All the rest were hung.There were no 
witches burned at the stake, contrary to 
common belief.
In Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) we visited an enormous park-like cemetery. 

A private citizen's grave marker, some
40 feet high. Elmwood Cemetery, 
Memphis, TN
Unlike U.S. graveyards, the Leningrad cemetery was a social place, filled with people strolling casually arm in arm, in spite of the cold, snowy April weather. Residents visited that hallowed ground, remembering the suffering and deaths of civilians who died of starvation among other things, during the long siege in WWII.

"Here lyes buried.."  Death battles the Angel. Boston, MA
We also made a solemn visit to the site of a concentration camp near Riga, Latvia.  There are no individual graves there of course, but rather the entire site is a memorial to that portion of the 6 million souls that were exterminated there. I will never forget the silent bus ride away from that place.  Silent but for the sobs of my friend, who remembered her Latvian relatives that she never knew; that entire family was wiped from the earth in that place. Only silence was possible in the face of such bald grief and horror.
Above ground vaults in Charleston, S.C.
Hampton, VA.  Large statue honoring the deaths of the Confederate soldiers.

"Here rest dear dust till christ shall come.  And raise the
body from the tomb, A glorious body like his own, ........
you near hisheavenly throne." Isle of Shoals.
Most of the burial grounds that I have visited are not laden with the intensity of that experience in Latvia. Rather, I look with eagerness for what I can learn from the grave markers, about the beliefs and the lives of those laid to rest. 
Parish church of St. Augustine from 1572 until 1702.  
Church and cemetery built according to Spanish
Ordinances, "so that it may be seen upon leaving the
sea, and in a place where it can serve as
 a defense of the port.

I always look for the oldest markers within a graveyard. I look at the ages of the deceased, their relationships to those in the surrounding plots and hints about how those people came to live in that area. 

Cause of death of three young people--
MVA and ocean

In some of the early burial sites, the cause of death might be mentioned, or it may be inferred by large numbers of deceased in the same time period. For example, an abundance of markers stating 1918 as the year of death makes me wonder whether these were due to the Spanish flu;  the pandemic was so successfully spread across the globe by soldiers returning home after WWI. 

Cholera Cemetery 1850's.  Epidemic killed
 ~100,  buried in mass grave.
Some deadly diseases such as cholera in the Bahamas, and Yellow Fever in Memphis overwhelmed the living with the sheer numbers of bodies to be buried.  Sadly, in such times, individual markers may have given way, by necessity, to unmarked mass graves.  
Green Turtle Cay, Abacos, Bahamas.  Many stones display
 likeness of deceased.

Repetition of names in the graveyard are of interest to me.  When the same surnames are repeated over and over in a burying yard, I think about large families settling an area together.  Or, in other circumstances, families subject to forced relocation, such as the Japanese Americans in Portland during WWII. 
Sculpture remembering imprisoned
 Japanese-Americans in Portland, OR

 I enjoy finding the language used on the stones to describe the deceased or to honor their memory.  
Bahamian grave marker.  ".....'Ole Mutton'"  An endearment

Boston, Massachusetts
In that same way, I try to ferret out the opinions of those laying the deceased to rest.  Cultural perspectives are often evident; the value assigned to persons of certain occupations or whose contributions to the community were especially meaningful.  
New York City graveyard

I draw inferences about wealth and relative standing in the community from the size of the headstones, the elegant designs and the walls around family plots,  
"Sir Robert Eden Bart.  Provincial Governor of Maryland. 1769 - 1776.
Who departed his life at Annapolis September 2, 1784 in 43rd year of his life.    
His remains were taken from the sanctuary of the old church of St. Margaret's,
Westminster and laid beneath this stone by...."
Headstones from a certain time period and place tend to share many similarities, such as how the inscriptions are worded, the shapes of the stones or graves themselves.  
"She is not dead but sleepeth."
Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, TN

When I see these, then I like to look for the outliers, the markers that are different from the others. I wonder, who was this person whose family defied the norms of the day by a unique burial.  
"Elder William Brewster, Patriarch of the Pilgrims and their Ruling Elder 1609-1644.
Outstanding leader of Pilgrim Movement, the founding of Plimouth Plantation and the
establishment of civil and religious liberty in the New World."

Elvis Presley's grave at Graceland.  600,000
people visit annually. Many thousands
gather there on the anniversary of his death.
The very oldest markers were made of wood, and those have long since rotted away.  Sadly, many of the older stone markers are no longer legible. Sometimes, the graves of historically significant folks have been marked by more recently made stone replacements.  

"Paul Revere Buried in This Ground"....
"May the youth of today when they visit 
this old house (Revere's house) be inspired 
with the patriotism of Paul Revere."
Tourists are, of course, reliably interested in those markers of famous people.  
Tour guides in period costume talk about
historically significant Bostonians

Tourism in the graveyards of places like Boston and Philadelphia is common. I am really interested in the others buried nearby as well.  
Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis. The site of
actors to portray residents of the graveyard.

A very old graveyard in Memphis is annually the site of popular theatre.  Actors pose as some of the more colorful residents of that place. A fascinating afternoon!

Common sense suggests to me that folks who lived in poverty would have also died in poverty and thus were not afforded fancy markers.  
The four bricks on the right serve as a
common grave marker.  No name or
other information is usually available.
The poor may have had no inscriptions whatsoever, but rather, merely a few bricks to mark the spot where they were laid.  

I feel especially rewarded when I find graves marking those who in life would have held little status.  Historically, slaves would have been buried in separate locations some distance from the graves of their white masters’.  It seems rare, to me at any rate, to find an entire slave graveyard.
The burial vault of George Washington at Mount Vernon, VA.

"In memory of the many faithful colored servants of the
Washington family buried at Mount Vernon.
My heart jumps a little when I come across a stone with only a crudely carved inscription.  Like the small stone in Greenville, MS that said simply, “Sarah  78 years  June 1859.”  From this I deduce that Sarah was very dear to someone; that someone had labored over this marker for her; perhaps tears dropped on the stone as the few words were chipped away.  Because there is no surname, I assume she was a slave.
"Captain James Hicks" officer of the
Confederate Navy. described as an
"unselfish patriot, and a pure christian
and man of exemplary honor."

Graveyards are often placed in topographically interesting places.  It makes practical sense to use a steep hillside for a graveyard. It is much easier to dig a grave on a steep hillside than it is to till a field there.  
Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Many of the original Mayflower passengers are buried here.

A single headstone along the Columbia
River marks the burial of an early
explorer to the Gorge.
People will of course, try to avoid burials in a flood plain if at all possible.  Residents of New Orleans understand that they all reside within a flood plain and approach the problem in a rather unique way. Above ground vaults may contain many members of one family.  Tour guides will explain that in preparation for the above ground “burial”, the previous occupant of the vault will have decomposed and is then “pushed to the back.” 
New Orleans cemetery.  Above ground vaults encourage
decomposition quickly, allowing for additional burials
in the same vault the following year.

In some rural areas, I have noticed that there are many small graveyards spread across rural areas, and that many have signage identifying it as family plot.  These private family burial grounds are now reminders of earlier times when plantations covered this whole area. 
Thomas Jefferson's gravestone at Monticello.

In this area around Oriental, NC, where we spending some weeks this summer, we have counted 8 small graveyards on the 24 mile drive to New Bern.  None of them are associated with any church.  I have avoided walking through any of them because they are close to homes.

Our rear wheel blocked from falling off the ferry.
Last Sunday we drove (and rode a ferry) to Beaufort, NC.  We found a place to park near “The Old Burying Ground.”  Naturally, I had to walk through it. Nicely crafted brochures guided us in exploration of the stones. 

Old Burying Ground, Beaufort, NC
Of all the many burial grounds that I have explored, this one was especially remarkable for the diversity of its residents.  There were Union as well as Confederate soldiers. There were blacks that had been born as Freed Men, and some that were born into slavery that had sought refuge in Beaufort behind Union lines. 
Flat, square headstone suggests an upright burial, as
requested by this British Naval Officer.

And two significantly unusual burials took place there.  There was the British soldier that, at his request, was buried standing up in salute to King George III. 
Grave of little girl buried in a barrel of rum.

And finally, the little girl who died at sea and rather than burying her at sea (as was the practical thing to do) was instead preserved in a barrel of rum.  When her remains arrived in the U.S., she was buried, barrel and all in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground.

My ancestor's log cabin
A Mostly True Personal Story 

When I was a child, one of the family stories that intrigued me involved a family member’s grave. It strikes me now as an unlikely tale, but I leave it for you to decide.  
Wrought iron gate, in Somes, Maine.
Similar to the one in Rooster Valley,
My grandmother had 3 uncles who served in the Civil War.  The story was that one of them came home from the War with the horse that he rode into battle.  When he (the uncle) died, he was buried in the family cemetery in Rooster Valley, southeastern Minnesota.  The family story is that his war horse was buried alongside him (without a marker.... I asked.)  When I visited my hometown a few years ago, I took a drive down through Rooster Valley looking for the old rural cemetery that lies there tucked between the fields of corn and soybeans.  There I found the graves of the three uncles alongside one another.  None of the three had ever married.   I suppose that what I was looking for that day was something that would disprove the story of the horse being buried alongside him.  But what I found was that this great great uncle was buried at the end of a row of graves.  There was plenty of room for a horse to have been laid to rest next to him. Hmmm.

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