By Hardy Jackson
I was strolling one day in a lonely graveyard
When a voice from the tomb seemed to say,
“I once lived as you live, walked and talked as you talk,
But from Earth I was soon called away.”
Early 19th century American folk song
Studies show that Southerners treat their dead differently from how those in other parts of the country do. For one thing, we bury them. Cremation is getting more popular, but we lag behind the rest of the nation in that category. We mark them – the memorial industry is going great guns down here. And, according to polls, we visit the deceased more frequently than our neighbors to the North and West.
So it stands to reason that if you want to learn about a Southern place and its people, go to the town cemetery. Walk through that “marble orchard,” pay attention and learn.
Notice dates, how they are often clustered together, a sign of one of those epidemics that visited with deadly regularity. And notice how so many dates run heavily into months like January, February, and March – cold and damp months when pneumonia, the “old folks’ friend,” carried so many away.
And there are the markers themselves, some standing like tree trunks (he was a “Woodsman of the World”). I’ve seen them carved in the shape of log trucks (a major occupation down where I grew up) or with deer on them – if the late-lamented was a hunter. And then there are those with angels or lambs to tell us that the baby that was a parents’ hope is “safe in the arms of Jesus” – long ago there were too many of those.
There are the graves of young people, sometimes with the same date of death, to remind their friends when the car crashed. And husbands and wives, who could not live long without the other, so didn’t.
There are family plots, some full to overflowing because the mother buried there in the middle told her children that no matter how far away they roamed they had better make arrangements to be brought back and put down beside her. Because she believed in the bodily resurrection and when judgement day came she had no intention of rising up, looking around, and seeing a bunch of strangers.
Off a ways, under a pecan tree, is a grave that never has flowers on it – he didn’t like flowers. He liked Auburn and Mardi Gras, so every football season the stone is festooned with orange and blue and during the week before Lent it is hung with masks and beads.
And there is the empty grave, with a simple marker saying how the young man who was president of the senior class, captain of the football team, best looking and “an all-around good sport” died in 1944, in France and is buried over there.
Or the grave that would have been fuller if the family of the deceased had followed the instructions set out in her will to have her cats “put to sleep” and laid to rest in her coffin with her. Mortified, her kin discussed getting a lawyer and breaking the will only to be rescued by a town official who said there was an ordinance against burying animals alongside human remains – and even if he was lying (and he probably was) no one asked any questions. Some swamps just don’t need draining.
And that little family cemetery with the road curving around it. It would have gone through, but when the county tried to find out who owned the land, they discovered that the property had been deeded “to the dead” and the dead weren’t about to sign it over. Hence the curve.
All of these are memorials to the lives well lived and to those cut short. But always to life, which is why, in addition to being markers to memory and loss, these graves are also affirmations and celebrations. Over the years, I have seen enough of them to know that despite the uniqueness of each plot and the person buried there, there is a sameness that reflects the character of the South – its nobility, its flaws and its foibles.
And there is always that one grave to remind us of the really important things. My favorite reads simply, “I am not here. I live in my children.”
And she does.
Oh, those tombs, lonely tombs,
Seem to say in a low gentle tone,
“Oh, how sweet is the rest,
In that beautiful, heavenly home.”
Harvey H. Jackson is retired professor emeritus of history, Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.