for the love of cemeteries

Posted February 28th, 2011 by

My whole life I’ve loved cemeteries. Some people find that morbid. I find it fascinating and life-affirming. I’ve been known to pull off the road while driving just to check out a cemetery we encounter. Reading random headstones fires the imagination. I ran across John T. Dana’s headstone in a small cemetery in Massachusetts in 2002, two hundred years after his death at age 34: “Cut down at so early a period in the midst of his commercial concerns. Let it teach thee reader to set thy affections on things above.” Interesting, huh?

Nearby was another, “In memory of Capt. Elisha Allen who was inhumanly murdered by Samuel Frost July 16, 1793 aged 48 years.” There’s definitely a story behind that one.

The saddest plot I encountered that day was where six siblings, aged one to fifteen all died on different days between February 7 and March 9, 1786. Their parents were buried next to them 30 years later.

Though I’ll walk through any cemetery to check out random headstones my primary interest is in locating the graves of my own ancestors. Earlier that same summer of 2002 I flew to the Midwest in order to visit cemeteries in many small communities in Iowa and Illinois. I located my grandfather, great grandparents, 2x great grandmother, and 3x great grandparents and numerous distant cousins, aunts and uncles.

My writing partner, Sharon Morgan, also loves cemeteries. Having this interest in common is a definite plus for writing Gather at the Table together. We’re in the early stages of planning a significant road trip this summer that we hope will take us through the South and Midwest where we’ll research relatives in courthouses and, no doubt, try to find them in cemeteries.

Several months ago Sharon and I were in Chicago and visited Oak Woods Cemetery. My 3x Great Uncle, Calvin DeWolf is buried there. Not far from him we also found the burial site of several distant relatives of Sharon’s. She wasn’t aware of it previously but simply asked the woman at the counter in the Oak Woods office to check some names. Sometimes it is that easy. Often times it isn’t.

Though there is nothing on Calvin’s simple headstone to indicate it, he was an active abolitionist. He helped found the Anti-Slavery Society of Illinois in 1839 and was indicted in 1858 for aiding in the escape of a fugitive slave. I pointed out to Sharon my gratification in finding such a noble ancestor, since my first book was all about the slave-traders in the family.

What is it about us that we desire to have noble ancestors?” I asked.

Your ancestors inform your feelings about yourself,” she replied

That’s exactly it. We inherit physical traits from our forebears. And we inherit much more: belief systems, attitudes, and outlooks on life. Learning as much about them as we can allows us to be discerning about what to preserve and what to discard among our many inheritances.

I ran across a wonderful, sad, and ultimately hopeful article the other day about a man showing his young daughter where their ancestors are buried. It’s titled “Neglected graves home to ‘invisible dead.'” I hope you are moved by this article as much as I was.

“… I’m trying to keep it in your memory the way granddaddy kept it in mine so it won’t be forgotten.”

How long did they bury our kin here?” his daughter asks.

They started in the early 1800s, baby. They worked our people to death here. They were slaves. And probably about 1905 is when they stopped burying in this area.

I believe that part of the reason Sharon and I love traipsing through cemeteries is so we can share our history with our grandchildren so that the stories of their ancestors, and the stories of this nation’s past that have too often been buried and made invisible, will live in their memories.

2 responses to “for the love of cemeteries”

  1. […] To learn more about just how cool cemeteries are, read my latest blog post: for the love of cemeteries. […]

  2. nicola says:

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