I love old graveyards, and that was something I didn’t know about myself until I was in Raleigh this past summer and wanted to go visit Elizabeth Edwards grave site at the Oakwood Cemetery. I don’t know why I got that in my head to visit there, but while those monuments were definitely impressive, what was more interesting was finding these family plots with generations of people who were connected and you could start tracing out the family tree from the headstones.
I’m spending this long weekend hanging out at an Airbnb house (most wonderful) with my daughter (also most wonderful) just reading and writing (not the novel, sadly, that didn’t work out like I’d planned) and relaxing (the three Rs). I’m also trying to beat this fitbit flex 10,000 step light-up torture device on my wrist that I won at work two months ago, so I needed a place to walk. The Airbnb is about a half a mile (1000 steps) from the Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate, KY, which has lots and lots of steps in it (9000 if you get lost by accident. Traveler’s tip: Bring your phone and the gps).
I walked through about a third of it yesterday and another third of it today. Today I found the older parts including a headstone for one man who was born in 1776, which just takes you aback a bit. I found the family who founded the town, the Southgate family, in fact. I also found a whole big family that started with this guy, James Taylor (not the singer) whose monument mentions that when he settled here the place was “still infested with the wily Indian.”
The whole family was around that monument, and then it spilled over into another family section, joined by the marriage of James Taylor the son (not the singer either). Then I found one with a middle name that matched the family name in the next over section. People got married and stayed with the same people in the same towns for a lot longer by then.
Or they seem to imply that they never got married at all. This memorial said that Mary Aurelia Mayo was the Consort of Captain Andrew Lewis on the same memorial, which you would think sounds sort of risque. It turns out that this is supposed to mean she died before him. Except that Mary died four years after the Captain, and they don’t have the same last name either. I don’t know much about etiquette in the 1840s but I’m thinking not too many women kept their last names. Still, probably just a mistake in terms. But this was way more interesting while I was in the cemetery thinking Captain Lewis and Miss Mary were all scandalous.
Next up, the sad one. I can’t read the verse on the bottom of this memorial but it’s one of the beatitudes–Blessed are the… for they shall… (And if you’re unfamiliar with the book of Matthew, that’s how all of them start the first and second lines. I think it was the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.) The wear and tear and weathering of old tombstones is quite severe. I imagine when you put that piece of granite down you believe that the inscriptions will be visible for hundreds of years, but they don’t stay in many cases.
Most of the inscriptions on this one stayed, though, and 164 years after the fact, I stopped short, completely saddened. How did Maria die, and what happened to her bridegroom? Had she loved him? Had he waited for her? Or was it an arranged marriage that no one was all too thrilled about? If that was true, and it could have been, did he feel nothing at all except for guilt over feeling nothing at all?
I think this is why I love wandering through cemeteries, even though I do think there’s a morbidity about it. In between all of the standard dates and numbers and facts of life, there are these bits of real history of real lives — he was born in Wales, England but died in Newport, Kentucky. That’s quite a journey for one life. I got to ponder that for today. But there’s something about the history of cemeteries that I think is passing by us. It’s similar to what I saw in a stationery shop window in the Short North of my hometown (On Paper). The owner has been collecting old envelopes and made them into these large wreaths. They’re postmarked and addressed, sometimes just to a single name and the town — Washington, DC. Can you imagine? It’s a dreamy display, that makes you think and wonder what was in those envelopes once? What are their stories?
We won’t have that someday, not anymore. And just as people don’t write letters that stay around for decades, people don’t live and grow old and die in the same places, and so there is no permanence attached to their cemeteries either. No this family melding into that family and then into that one for a century or more.
And there will be no more wandering through and stopping to breathe in the history that would lead a man to make sure this one truth about one woman was known forever.