My husband and I went to a small, rural cemetery last weekend. We volunteer to take photographs of headstones, for genealogy purposes, for those who are researching their family. For many who do so, a photograph of a burial marker can be an important factor for documenting relationships, birth dates, and death dates. For some people, it serves as a memento of a loved one, a distant relative, or a previously unknown ancestor.
No matter what type, grave markers are the last tangible evidence of a life lived, the last footprint, the dwindling end of the thread created by each of us. Markers may be grand: marble obelisks, hulking granite monoliths, family groupings in an elite section of the cemetery, even modernistic machined aluminum with shining swirls and gleaming surfaces. They may be adorned with scrolls, flowers, poems, symbols of lifetime hobbies, or laser-etched portraits of the deceased. Conversely, I have come across stones that were obviously hand made, probably by family members who couldn’t afford anything else. Some of these were concrete, some aggregate with lots of little pebbles, shells, and what looked like clinkers (leftover bits of burned coal) in the mix, with the name and dates written into the wet media with a stick or some other object. I’ve seen memorials cobbled together from various pieces of metal; something to withstand the elements for as long as possible.
I usually take photos of these markers simply because I want to take the time to notice and acknowledge it. The families who made these poor grave stones have probably been gone for decades, if not more than a hundred years, and there may be no living relatives who remember their existence at all, but they did what they could to mark a grave. And that matters. Of these crude markers, many get right to the point, name and date, finished. There are others that betray heart-wrenching sadness so great one gets the feeling it was all they could do to write anything on it at all. I found a roughly-shaped, poured concrete stone that said merely,”Billy.” Wow. One word and I was more struck by this stone than the most impressive monument.
There are cemeteries, now forgotten, which have been absorbed into the forest, overtaken by weeds, nettles, and blackberry bushes, or are lying beneath a mountain of brambles in a farmer’s field, no longer visible and reduced by time to an area to be plowed around.
I guess I wish that Billy, and the others who lived, died, and were buried with homemade stones, would know they have been thought of, even by people with no idea who they are. And if they can, I wonder what those who were buried in the cemetery we saw last weekend would think. Lost Grove Cemetery was visited by a tornado on September 9, 2016. It’s an old cemetery, with headstones from at least the early 19th century up to the 1960’s when burials there ceased. The southern portion of the cemetery was hit hardest, with stones scattered about the grass, which was bright green from the recent rain, like wooden blocks left out by a child after playtime.
Huge stones had been lifted from their plinths and jammed into the earth at awkward angles. Graceful obelisks had toppled. Some were lying in the grass, neatly lined up like soldiers in a row. In some cases though, they collapsed onto their neighbors which damaged the obelisk and sometimes crushed the adjacent stone. All that remained of one small, very old stone was a pile of limestone dust with some chips around it, flung out as the great weight descended directly on top of it. On the street front, there is a mausoleum, Victorian design in brick and stone, as well as several evergreen trees. Four of the trees had been stripped of their bark, like bananas, then snapped off, bundled into a wild tangle, and deposited in a pile. The mausoleum lost its decorative corners and the carved stones that had been in place for at least 115 years.
We were there to search for two stones from one family. In the midst of all this destruction, what now? Now, we will help with the cleanup if volunteers are needed. And we hope that after the little cemetery is set back to rights, or as near as it can be, we will return and search for the two stones. I hope we find them for their family member, but if we can’t — if the markers were destroyed by the tornado or were already missing or unreadable to begin with — I hope they know that someone in their family is searching for them and values their last bit of thread in this world.