Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Hallowed Ground of the Cemetery

I recently came across the following quote on USGenWeb. It pretty much spells out how we, as genealogists, both professional and non-professional, feel about cemeteries.

" Wo, to him who can trample down without emotion the grass of the church yard, and who breathes not within his heart a fervent prayer at sight of those tombs, where so many affections, so many hopes are swallowed up, and many we will hope are at rest in the Lord. The only thing certain is the destruction of the body, and the immortality of the soul; for that frail body, dust and forgetfulness. For the soul, a celestial dwelling where it will enjoy eternal happiness, if it has not betrayed the purpose of its mission, in the course of its short pilgrimage on earth. Yes! tread lightly in the cemetery; there kneel in that place consecrated to grief and meditation. It seems impossible, even to approach such a spot without the soul being benefited; it will probably awaken some holy recollections of childhood or some warning of the shortness of life. What a volume are those tombs; how eloquently do they speak to the heart, at least to those who understand their language --how forcibly do they announce the nothingness of terrestrial things! Yes! it is in these pages, traced by the hand of death, that we may study and learn the necessity of virtue -- If man approached more frequently the resting place of the dead he would not remain so indifferent to the mild voice of conscience.
-The Democratic Banner, Guyandotte, WV, Thursday, 7 May 1874"

I noted with great sadness on Memorial Day when my 72 year old Dad and I attended to our family graves that the grass had not been cut recently at the cemetery. There were stones that were crooked or broken. Even my own grandparents stone had been knocked from it's base by a riding lawn mower and requires us to provide the repair.

We noted the hundreds of tombstones that lay without adornment. Not a flag or a flower in site.

We spent over an hour at one of our cemeteries. While there we noted only a single couple. We introduced ourselves, as they were visiting a grave just one row beyond my great-grandparents. The woman told us her 92 year old mother was in the car. They had driven up from Virginia to visit her familiy's stones. Her mother was originally from the little town my Dad was. They encouraged us to stop by their car and speak with the woman. And so we did.

What a pleasant visit we had! The sweet, fragile looking woman was sharp-witted and bright. She clearly remembered my Dad's family. Even his father, who passed away in 1954.

We visit three cemeteries on our yearly round. In the little cemetery at Gates, near Keenan, WV, we saw not a single visitor. There was evidence that others had been there in their flowers and flags on the graves. But no one there as we were. At the second, Carmel Cemetery, in Gap Mills, we saw 2 other cars. And as I said, at the last, in Waiteville, the lone other car.

What has happened to the respect we once had for the cemetery?

There was a time when families went to the cemetery in the spring, and again in the fall, to clean the graves and do any maintenance needed on tombstones. When I was a child, families went every Memorial Day to pay tribute and provide maintenance and care for the grave. [We don't have perpetual care in the little cemeteries where I am from. Many here are family cemeteries. Others church owned. Some do good just to get the grass cut a few times during the summer months.]

Families today do not take the time to teach their children about those who are buried there. The children, in turn, have no respect for those who have come and gone. Much less for their final resting place.

Heaven help us when we stand before our maker and we are found guilty of not respecting those who have paved the way for us! I feel it is my obligation to my ancestors to provide their final care.

I am sure that I get some very strange looks from people as I visit my families graves. I find myself talking aloud to them. Even those that passed away before I was ever born or thought of! My favorite place to sit and talk is to my great-grandmother, Margaret, and to my grandfather, John. Great-grandmother died in 1891. And my grandfather died in 1954, a few years before my birth. But I have studied them so carefully that I can almost smell them!

Great-grandmother was a bony woman who worked like a man! I can see that in her. She would put in a full-days work, yet still have the tender touch of a loving mother as she tucked her little ones beneath soft, thick quilts at night. This is a woman who took four small children, put them in a covered wagon, hitched an ox to it, and drove it from the present day Virginia/West Virginia line in Monroe County, all the way to Sandusky, Ohio! That was through enemy territory, during the Civil War! And yes, she did it alone. What a woman!

Grandfather, John, was born in 1866 in Ohio, following the War. His mother and father came back to West Virginia shortly after his birth. In a family of relatively tall men, grandfather was a short, squat 5'7". He liked to tease that the move from Ohio to West Virginia in a covered wagon during the dead of winter when he was an infant, stunted his growth. [The story was told that they all nearly froze to death before they got back to the comfort of their old home in West Virginia!]

Grandfather was faithful Christian. And a wonderful story teller. When my Dad was born to him, my Grandpa was 71 years old. So, he had the time to sit and talk to my Dad. Dad regales me now with the tales his father told him about his family. Sometimes I can hear Grandpa tell me to have faith; to just hold on; when things get tough.

Funny how these people, these people who were gone so many years before I came along, can speak so clearly to me today!

I wonder... who will listen for them to speak when I am gone? Who will watch their graves when I am no more? Who will tell their story when I am silent?

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