One of my pastimes is exploring old rural cemeteries. Not a morbid preoccupation, this hobby is a way to open windows of history into family and community. In this hurried and harried world of digital reality, too many times we focus on the dizzying pace of the here-and-now or the technological roller coaster speeding us into the future.
We’ve forgotten those who passed before us. Their lives, hopes and dreams all mattered. Understanding not just who they were, but what they accomplished and how they overcame trials and tribulations leads to greater appreciation of preceding generations and the debt of remembrance we owe them.
Across rural Appalachia, small and often isolated cemeteries tell the stories of individuals and families. Tombstone inscriptions, dates, even the styles of memorials and statuary often speak volumes.
Recently, I was guided by friends to a tiny graveyard on the knob of a ridge along the Cumberland Plateau. The early spring sunlight would have made for a warm afternoon, except for the north wind that whistled through the valley and rushed up the hillside, whipping the bare trees.
Cloud shadows and dried leaves chased among the grave markers, many dating back more than a century. The grass was greening, and daffodils bloomed in scattered clumps. In several places, relatives had cleaned debris off plots and spread plastic flower arrangements.
But overall the cemetery conveyed a feeling of age confirmed by the tombstone inscriptions. Toward the back, where the fenced boundary tapered to steepness, a line of small memorials stood: old-fashioned vertical markers, perhaps two feet long and a foot wide, with rounded tops like blunt teeth growing from the earth.
Ten tombstones. All infants born in the first decade of the 20th Century to the same parents.
My friends and I stood stock still and stared at the markers. The great tragedy began to sink in. Here was a family that had experienced the unthinkable. Husband and wife lost 10 sons and daughters. Several of the infants barely had a chance to take breath.
The grief caused by a single infant’s death is crushing. But multiply that anguish times 10 in a heart-rending cycle of birth and death, and the result is -- unimaginable.
Life in rural Appalachia 100 years ago was a challenge. Childhood mortality was high due to the ravages of disease, poor nutrition and the absence of medical care for mothers and infants. Many women died in childbirth or from illnesses related to pregnancy and its after-effects. Congenital illness was not well understood.
Fortunate were the women with access to actual doctors or hospitals. Many relied on midwives, friends and relatives to deliver their babies. My parents, aunts and uncles came into the world in this manner.
In almost every rural family, infant deaths occurred. This was a fact of life in those days. But 10 in the same family?
The tombstones did not give details, only the dates of birth and death. “Infant Son” or “Infant Daughter” instead of a name inscribed on the stone seemed to indicate still-born children among the parents’ heartache. In the face of these tragic blows, they kept the hope of being blessed with children who lived. This seems to me an example of steadfast faith and indomitable spirit.
What the grave markers don’t reveal is whether they had children who survived. I pray this was the case. I’d like to find out.
I once owned a tract of land behind a country church where the graveyard had spilled across our property line. White and black folks were buried there. Marble slabs and granite angels shouldered together with homemade sandstone markers etched with misspelled words.
Many of the graves were simply borders of rock or broken colored glass, held together with crumbling mortar. The names of the deceased probably had been scrawled on wooden crosses but long ago rotted away.
My wife and I called this group of graves the “forgotten ones,” because the space was overgrown with honeysuckle vines and brush. Cemetery caretakers dumped old grave decorations in the tangle. We suspected the remains of poor people rested in this place and visited often to wander and read the inscriptions.
I will never forget the simple grave of Birdie Winton: an age-stained concrete stone embedded with black, white and brown marbles – the kind of “shooting marbles” that boys played with before video games and television were invented – and blue Milk of Magnesia bottles. (My wife speculated that family members placed flowers in the bottles on Decoration Day.)
Birdie lived a long life and witnessed amazing changes. Born in 1895, she saw airplanes fly in the sky and rockets launched to the moon. Two world wars and several lesser conflicts were waged in her lifetime. Polio, the scourge of children across the globe, was defeated, along with other deadly diseases.
America was electrified. Signals were broadcast through the air to form images and sounds on the screens of television sets. She witnessed the birth of the civil rights movement and cried during the national days of mourning for President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King.
She died at age 96. Maybe her family did not have the money to purchase a fancy headstone. But I suspect that Birdie preferred a homemade marker like those on either side of her final resting place. On the face of the concrete square – drawn when the cement was still setting -- was her name, dates of birth and death, and the simple words “Mama” and “Love.”
Cemeteries aren’t sad. They’re places where snippets of happiness and dignity are displayed to teach those of us who find inspiration by lives well-lived, even among strangers long gone from this earth.
ν Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor. He resides in Tennessee.