Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Something About Cemeteries

I was about eight years old when my father took me exploring on the hill. It was essentially a wooded place with baseball fields and a small pond at its base, a ski jump and  grassy slope suitable for winter sledding, a road generally used for parking (petting purposes) just below the summit, and a lot of forest. The hill was situated just on the outskirts of the city--a stark point of delineation between that metropolis and the country setting that began just to the west. The day my dad took me up there was a day of exploration--my first day of inquest into the deeper recesses of the mount that seemed to have an almost inexhaustible number of mysteries to explore. I was after all, a child.

We walked way into the woods on that afternoon--to places that were as yet unfamiliar to me. At some point my father stopped to look at an object. "Will you look at this!" he exclaimed. Situated right before him was a cemetery--a very small cemetery. Although my memory of it is vague, I seem to remember the largest grave marker as being inside a fenced-in area; If my memory serves me correctly, there were maybe three graves contained within a narrow space. That was it; that was the extent of the cemetery. 

Even at that young age I felt a deep sense of melancholy standing there in the quiet of the forest, reading the names and epitaphs inscribed upon the stones. The family's name was King and I quickly realized that the pond upon which I skated during the winter months had been named after these people; yet, here they were, lying in a tiny graveyard that had long ago been abandoned--long forgotten and only embraced by the towering trees whose leaves sometimes rustled in the wind as if conveying into the present the voices and spirits of the past. 

Cemeteries tell stories, and to read the inscriptions upon any grave marker or monument is to learn a piece of history--to learn of the joys and struggles of those who came before us. Since that day in the woods with my father, I've always maintained a keen sense of respect; even reverence, for these special places.

I feel very fortunate, because not only is my current living space adjacent to several graveyards of historic significance, but I have involvement with the maintenance of at least a couple. There's a deep sense of history here; and most every day, I walk or drive by the final resting places of early pioneers--people who migrated to this area from places far away in times long ago--people who founded what is now a thriving community and helped shape it into what it is today. 

While a couple of the cemeteries here have been maintained as much as possible with a limited budget, there are others farther back in the woods that have become overgrown with vegetation and damaged by both the remnants of a hurricane and the ravages of a January ice storm. To walk among the departed in these areas is to look upon grave markers with inscriptions long ago compromised by wind and rain as well as hallowed out strips of Earth that designate the inevitable collapse of caskets placed into the ground during centuries past. No one seems to know much about those buried in these plots, even those whose monuments are still legible. 

Yes it's true, many of those who once loved and worked, laughed and cried, raised families and bravely blazed trails where no one had gone before have been completely forgotten. Now, only the trees that defend them from the hustle and bustle of the outside world--the trees that have shared this tiny piece of Earth with the departed for decades know their secrets--their happiness and sorrow--their triumphs and tribulations. 

There are legends and ghost stories associated with both this mountain and general locale as well. I even had my own experience with something one summer night. I'll leave the story of that occurrence and the other tales for another time perhaps. Still, just last week I was made aware of something potentially significant regarding the neighboring graveyards. 

There is a grave marker back in the woods that now stands all by itself. On the front of the stone is inscribed the name "Sally." That's all it says; there's no last name or date of birth and death--just Sally. Given the fact that I live in the American South, the history of this mountain and the family that once owned most of its territory, I assumed that Sally must have been a slave before or during our War Between the States. I would think about her from time to time and long considered her the "Forgotten Woman," titled after a poem written by a friend.  

There is a local group that has taken an interest in cleaning up and restoring the abandoned burial plots here, including the area under which Sally is interned. The person heading up the project has a ten year-old daughter whom he occasionally brings along with him. A few days ago, he informed me that upon his first visit here and his discovery of the abandoned burial plots, his daughter saw a little girl by the marker inscribed with the name Sally. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with the girl and asked her if she could describe the person she saw. She was about ten years of age, I was told, was wearing a pink dress and had brown hair, which was tied back into two pigtails. 

As the young lady was telling me this, she had no way of knowing that it was just last summer when I learned that Sally may not have been a slave after all. You see, at a ceremony during which one historic cemetery was deeded over to the association I'm involved with, I was handed a composition that had been written by the founder of the county historical society in 1951. The essay finished with these words: 

"I was about to leave the gloomy thicket when I spied a little headstone, all alone, almost buried under the creeper. I brushed the vines aside and read on the sandstone slab the single name 'Sally.' I was still thinking of the unknown little girl when I passed the Senator's grave on my way out of the historic but neglected graveyard."  

The above photo of a friend was taken during a photo-op in one of the neighboring cemeteries.  

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