I admit I’ve always been fascinated by gravestones, even before I knew so many folks six feet under. Headstone engravings tell so little about the persons they represent but often bring to mind stories, true or imagined. There’s a full name, in itself very interesting as you compare it to names of other family members. Then there are birth and death dates with one dash in between. For some, that dash only represents two years or less, to others ninety plus years. A knowledge of history helps as you study the stones to determine possible case of deaths. If you notice, for instance, people of various ages having died in 1918, you know they likely died in the great flu epidemic. After the dates, or sometimes in between name and dateline are words of memorial, some profound and wise, others oft-used lines like “Gone but not forgotten.” On many stones are Bible verses and I always wonder if the verse is favorite of the deceased or was chosen by a family member.
In Clarkesville, Georgia, there is a beautiful cemetery with death dates as old as the Revolution. As a teenager working summers at Brewer Drug Co., I often ate my lunch while sitting on a bench in that cemetery. I loved the shade of huge old white pines and I enjoyed studying the gravestones once I’d finished my sandwich.
One of my favorite novels is Bess Streeter Aldrich’s Song of Years. The opening chapter takes us down an old trail on the prairie for a peek into a cemetery, particularly a look at one gravestone. It reads “Suzanne Beloved wife of…” and then a blank because a thick growth of old clinging woodbine hides the rest of the inscription. The reader doesn’t know until the end of the story whose wife Suzanne was.
Eugenia Price, author of many Georgia historical novels about real people, found ideas for many of her stories in the Christ Episcopal Church cemetery on St. Simons Island. Now she’s buried there herself near one of her earliest characters, Anson Phelps Dodge. Hailing from West Virginia, she had become “The Beloved Invader,” and used that as the title for her novel about the young rector whose life was fraught with tragedy.
There is a cemetery at Midway, on the way to St. Simons Island, which has huge trees growing up from very old graves, the roots toppling grave stones and or slabs this way and that. In a museum nearby you can read about how Union soldiers used concrete grave slabs on which to slaughter and butcher livestock to cook and eat.
We used to enjoy, in a former neighborhood, walking to the end of our street and reading old lichen-covered gravestones in a little virtually forgotten cemetery. There were old cedars there and overgrown trash trees laced with all kinds of vines. We had to push foliage back from several of those graves in order to decipher them. On some the lettering was almost obliterated by time and tempests. As we read military inscriptions from both world wars, as well as children, wives and all, we speculated about those people who at one time were lively and quick, knew grief and pain and joy. The most surprising encounter we had in that cemetery was meeting a pretty little red fox who stared at us briefly before dashing off.
In Alaska, on a hill overlooking the sea, we found a collection of graves under fir trees through which the wind moaned. Many of those graves were very short, those of children who seemed to have died of some wicked plague. In Hawaii we came upon a “haunted” forest where graves and strange implements of worship gave us the creeps. Walking among rows and rows of crosses at Normandy Beach or amongst the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery makes us so grateful to those who bought our freedom.
I sometimes grab a cup of coffee or tea at a favorite coffee shop and head to Cairo’s oldest cemetery. I park in the shade of cedar trees, put the car window down, and enjoy absorbing a quiet afternoon as I study or write. (I do always make sure no funeral is in process.) I knew some of these people, members of our church and community. As I wander among the graves I think of Norman and Minnie Pipkin, stalwart examples of faithfulness. Even when he could no longer hear, Mr. Pipkin sat in his usual place at church responding as best he could. Lois and Everett Burroughs–what a dear sweet couple. She played piano so beautifully. I pause by the Mauldins’ graves, Mr. Ben and Miss Ada. Mr. Ben was a charter member at First Baptist Church, 1874. He remembered cleaning goat droppings off the steps when he was a boy. Over in the Roddenbery plot I particularly stop to remember Miss Virginia. She was a great pray-er and a dear friend. I had to stop at the Nicholson plot and thank God for our friend Wilkes Nicholson whose dash was way too short. With his wry humor and firm dedication to helping any in need, his life made a difference to so many. Harrells, Kemps, Hesters, Gaineys, Peacocks, Wights–I remember many faces, expressions, passions, and accomplishments. I feel blessed to have known them.
At my family’s home there is a tiny cemetery close to the original house my grandfather built in 1888. There are only four graves including my dad’s mother, grandmother, and aunt De, then my sister Carol, who died at the age of four before I was born. That cemetery was too small, surrounded as it was by tall pine trees, for our burgeoning family. So when my dad died in 1959 he was buried on Tulip Hill so named because of the beautiful straight tulip poplars on its slope. For years his was the only grave there. Then things began to happen, not only to the aged, but to young folks as well–disease, accidents, unexplainable difficulties. So now when I visit there I speak, as if they could hear me, to Mamma and Daddy, to Orman, Pat, John, Ginger, Stan, and to John Mark, Julie, Jonathon, Paul, Bob, and all the rest of this “cloud of witnesses.”
And that’s what they are, a cloud of witnesses, some with longer spans on earth, some with more significant contributions, some who felt more pain, and even some who caused more pain. What they did with their “dash,” the time between birth and death was quite different from one to another. But each one, from youngest to oldest, has a dash. Each one was loved. Each one made choices, whether good, bad, or best. And if they trusted Jesus for salvation, they are all in heaven right now!
Speaking of heaven leads me to mention a grave in Cairo’s newest cemetery. One of the first headstones placed there is that of Glenn Byrd, a former Director of Missions for Grady County Baptist Association. Brother Glenn developed an illness that drained him to skin and bones. After months of tests and futile attempts to make him better, doctors finally diagnosed him with cancer. Within a few short weeks he died. Charles and I went to see him on what turned out to be his last Sunday afternoon. He was so excited about meeting Jesus face to face, his emaciated face literally glowed.
When we visit Brother Glenn’s grave, Charles and I chuckle over a conversation that last Sunday. Brother Glenn, always thinking of others, said “For my service we’ll just greet everyone at church so they won’t have to stand out in the hot sun or rain.” Miss Melba stepped back in the room just then and said, “What’s this we stuff?”
Some might think it irreverent to laugh in a cemetery. To me, it seems quite natural. The occupants of the graves, whether I knew them or not, were real people and I like to remember or imagine their personalities, humor and all.
For instance, there’s Daddy JB over in Big Creek cemetery who loved a good joke better than anybody. He’d start on one of his tales and Mama Graham, who now lies beside him, would say, “JB, I’ve heard that joke a thousand times.” As I look at their super neat slabs surrounded with gravel, I can hear them lovingly bickering together.
P.S. I wrote this a week before the tornado tore up much of the southern part of Cairo. As I saw that even the old cemetery was trashed with fallen trees and limbs I had to remind myself that the inhabitants there were undisturbed by that awful storm.