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The Dead Do Tell Tales

Apr 28 2014

by Leigh Ann Thornton

Old Fort Williams Cemetery in Alabama

I’ve always loved tromping around old cemeteries, pausing to read each tombstone. In the early ’90s, on a walk through the woods near Lay Lake in central Alabama, I came across a cluster of tombstones with a monument in the middle. When I read the inscriptions I was surprised to learn that the cemetery was the final resting place for U.S. soldiers – from 1814. During the War of 1812 (1812-1815), General Andrew Jackson and his troops were passing through the area on their way to fight “the bloody British in the town of New Orleans” (you know the song) when they encountered a band of Red Stick Creek warriors. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was fought on March 27th, and Jackson’s dead were buried at a fort long since submerged under the lake created when the Coosa River was dammed in 1914. I’ve read that in the years since I happened upon the site, the land has been turned into a subdivision and the grave markers moved. But on that summer day when I was there, the old trees and I looked down on the actual spot where soldiers had dug in the dirt to bury their fallen comrades over 175 years prior. I imagined what the young men (for they were all young, too young) looked like. Scenes of them creeping through the forest, crouching behind trees, firing their guns, giving up their lives, played before my eyes. Their graves whispered their stories to me.

Being a historian, I love all things old – the older the better. And a cemetery, especially an old one, is a glimpse not only into the past but into the lives of those who’ve gone before us. I’ve driven through the national cemetery at Vicksburg, Mississippi, encompassing over 18,000 graves including the nation’s largest burial site of Union soldiers and sailors – over 17,000 of them, and I’ve mourned for a generation of young men who fought and died over a lost cause.

Vicksburg National Cemetery

I’ve walked through a tiny church’s cemetery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, smiled over bouquets of plastic flowers blooming from carefully tended plots, teared-up over the graves of little children marked with statues of angels, and thought of the families who laid their bodies to rest there. I’ve stood in St. Peter’s Anglican Church’s cemetery in St. George’s, Bermuda, peered at the barely decipherable words on graves from the 1600s, and wondered at the bravery of men and women who traveled months across an ocean to a wild, new world.

St. Peter’s Cemetery in St. George’s, Bermuda

I’ve strolled around Fairview Cemetery in League City, Texas, gazed at the Japanese inscriptions on the markers of the immigrants who brought rice farming to the area in the early 20th century, and imagined what life was like for people who left their country behind, learned a new language, and assimilated into a foreign culture.

Grave in Fairview Cemetery, League City, Texas

And I’ve searched fruitlessly among the graves in Lakeview Cemetery on Galveston Island, Texas for my grandmother’s brother who left Alabama looking for work and never returned.

Lakeview Cemetery, Galveston, Texas

I won’t give up my search for him, because for Southerners it’s vitally important to know who your kin are and where your kin are. And it is equally important to know who your kin were – all the ancestors and relations who have passed on to their eternal reward. And that knowledge must include information on their burial spots. We want to not only record them in our family tree but put photograph of their tombstones in our family albums.

My great-great grandfather’s tombstone. My son is his namesake.

Southern veneration of the dead includes naming our little ones after our dearly departed ancestors, passing down family heirlooms along with family lore, and taking rubbings of the inscriptions on the grave markers. And then there is the traditional holiday graveside picnic.

My Mama recalls going to Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama every Easter after church. Sporting crisp, new outfits and shiny, new shoes, Mama and her cousins carried Easter baskets filled with sweet treats. The adults brought picnic baskets, and they would eat next to the grave of my great-grandmother. Now that may seem like a morbid way to dine – an odd way to spend an afternoon amongst the dead and decaying on a holiday celebrating resurrection at the time of year when everything is fresh and new, blooming and budding. But Southerners, especially, know that the dead aren’t confined to the boxes buried in the dirt. Those are just the places we go to honor them. The tombstones are monuments to lives – some lived well, some wasted, some ended too soon, some lasting too long. But all the graves speak, and if we listen, we hear their stories.

The trend now seems to be cremation. My grandmother was cremated. We scattered most of her ashes at a monument in our hometown at the top of a mountain and kept some in a jar on the fireplace mantle. But I think I want to be buried (not any time soon, mind you) in a cemetery, settled under a tree which will spread its canopy over my remains and wrap its roots around them. And one day, my descendants can find my tombstone there, read my name, note the dates book-ending my life on this earth, and ponder whatever inscription my loved ones think appropriate to inscribe in stone. If you should be someone who happens upon the plot, please stop and listen. Listen for my story whispered from the grave.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,

Leigh Ann Thornton

Sweet Tea & High Cotton blog

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