“When out of sight, quickly also out of mind.”–Thomas a Kempis
They’re everywhere, like abandoned cars in the South Bronx (ca 1972), only you don’t see them on your way to the Bodega. No, these are found in the verdant fields and well-kept lawns of cemeteries in counties like Westchester, NY or Crittenden, VT. They are pieces of granite and marble and slate. These are the lost headstones of once living souls.
After the grave-side service, the living go back to their homes and jobs. The departed are left in the cold ground to await the Second Coming. The stones above their heads are now proud reminders of a life lived. Names, spouses, birth date, death date and maybe–if the family could afford it–a quote from the Bible or poem. But when the living kin begin to join those who have gone before, the memories of the “old dead” start to fade. Soon, no one is left to remember.
And then what?
I volunteer for a geneology group that provides photos of headstones upon request of the descendants. I get to wander graveyards. Perhaps these are just off the village green, at the edge of a cornfield or on a lonely hillside. When I locate and photograph a requested stone, I enter it onto a website. I get heartfelt thanks, for this simple task, from those who wished to see the stone. Some “thank you” emails are heartbreaking to read. But what is more painful is to fail in locating the stone. Many are simply too old to read through the lichen and weathering.
And then there are the stones that no one has asked for. Too many lie broken, fallen and covered over by grass…but the mute stones want to talk. Remember me? Remember who I was and what I did and who I married and who I loved. Recall how young I was when I met death? Or, how so very old I was, living beyond my allotted time from a century ago? See my little stone with a lamb on top? I was so young. See the sad poem my lover or spouse had carved by my name? I was handsome. I was beautiful. I put a gun to my head. I passed in childbirth. I died of a broken heart. I died surrounded by family and a preacher. I died alone.
Whatever they say to you, they know they are forgotten.
Mindless teenage boys push these stones over for fun. (May they rot in a special hell.) Some inattentive back hoe operator backs into a stone and breaks it. Whatever.
There is no one left to come and fix things.
This is where I come in. As a walker of these domains, I wonder why we, as a society, can’t do more to protect and preserve the memorial to the past? If we can declare a unique building in Buffalo a “landmark structure”, then why can’t the same logic extend to the neglected burying grounds of our forefathers (we are all related in some way). Not all cemeteries are like Mount Hope in Hastings, NY, Greenwood in Brooklyn or Arlington with famous interments and rich endowments. In these more commonplace grounds are all that is left of our links to the past. These places are where “The rude forefathers of our hamlet sleep” (‘rude’ used here as a synonym for ‘common’.)
It has to start local and then move outward. Churches, civic groups, boy and girl scouts, knitting societies, history buffs, students and gentle caring people could come forward to help to clean, restore and memorialize the hallowed grounds.
R.I.P.—Rest In Peace should mean more than something we put on cardboard tombstones at Halloween.
Weeds need to be pulled and attention given to those whom we have never met, but link us to our common roots.
“Of all the pulpits from which the human voice is ever sent forth, there is none is none that reaches so far as from the grave.”
I enjoyed your essay very much. In my own search for long ago ancestors I have seen both well tended and much ignored cemetery.
I’m glad you appreciated the posting. Okay if I ‘friend’ you on F.A.G.?
Yes please do.
I once visited a cemetery that was almost completely absorbed into the earth.
I learned of it from a 20-year old transcript of a genealogy journal mention which found its way to the internet. I wouldn’t have found it had I not gone to the spot where it was supposed to be and asked for directions. It turned out that it was on private property, and the owners graciously showed it to me and let me take pictures.
The 20 years had certainly prevailed. The landowners had cared for the graves as long as they could, and then they couldn’t anymore. I don’t begrudge them. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
Great storytelling. Just think of all the cemeteries that already are absorbed…and you never saw them. I never saw them. But there still there in some fashion. Are weeds that powerful that they can obliterate a presence of a human soul. By the way, I love ghost stories and such. Check out The Path to Bachelors Grove on FB.