I’ve always been fascinated with old cemeteries. Obviously, they are places of sorrow and grief along-side honor and remembrance. But they are also incredibly historical. I still remember a photograph I took 20 years ago in Buffalo, West Virginia. It was a small family cemetery with a light covering of snow on the ground. There were two headstones together; one of a mother and one of an infant. The mother died “aged 23 years, 10 months and 11 days.” She probably died in childbirth with her baby.
Sometimes it’s hard to grasp “history”…especially things that happened 200 years ago in places you’ve never been. At that point, it’s about words on a page rather than people and lives and human events. But when you visit a cemetery and see a grave from someone who lived through an event, or even died during that event, it seems to become more real. Since my daughters are hanging out with me this week for spring break, I thought I would show them what they could learn.
There is a small family cemetery just up the road from where I live. I’d never stopped there, but I was sure just from the look of it that we would find something interesting. A man was cutting the grass when we arrived. He said his father had cut the grass for years and when he got too old to keep it up, the man took over the job himself. His grandparents were buried there, along with his great, great grandfather who fought with the 4thWest Virginia regiment in the Civil War. And there was the connection I was looking for.
I showed the girls how to make rubbings of the headstones to possibly find details that you couldn’t see clearly. We ended up making a rubbing of the headstone for the man’s ancestor and we gave it to him to take home with him. He showed us the oldest grave in the cemetery, too. SG Jarrett was born in 1782 and died in 1860. Think about those years. That was the formation of our nation between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
Our friend also told us that there were some slaves buried near the front of the cemetery. He wasn’t sure of it, but that was local history. That got a “cool” from one of the girls. Not a “cool” for slavery, obviously, but a cool that that sort of history existed right there. They stopped to look at the small, un-etched grave markers. At each spot, there was only a small block of stone to record a life. They seemed to realize that it wasn’t “just” or “fair” that some people got large, family markers while slaves got little more than a rock indicating where their head would lie for eternity.
History isn’t always huge monuments in the nation’s capitol. But there is history in our very own backyards as well. In this one cemetery, in about a half an hour, we found a man who fought in the Civil War, graves of slaves, and someone who lived even before that, when the very first settlers came to this part of the world. It never hurts when you can make a connection through a person as well.