The Living and the Dead: Writing about Graveyards

My post on Rocky Hill Baptist Cemetery upset someone yesterday.  I am tender-hearted and wouldn’t ever want to hurt someone’s feelings.  I took down the pictures of the grave of that person’s loved one, and I made some clarifications on the original post.  But since I don’t want to stop writing about graveyards, and I don’t want to hurt anyone else’s feelings, I thought I would tell you a little about what goes into my graveyard musings.
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When I walk into a cemetery, I don’t arrive with any definite agenda.  I like to absorb the atmosphere and think about what that particular place is saying to me.  What is its story?  I could just take pictures of every headstone, or write the names of everyone buried there, but you can see that at Find-A-Grave.  I’m looking for atmosphere, and also to tie that cemetery into my thoughts on other topics.
For example, in this post I spoke of how lucky we are to have these little oases of peace and beauty in the middle of all the otherwise unbridled development in West Knox County.
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In this one I talked about the importance of names.
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This one was about remembrance.
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If I’m in a smaller cemetery, I try to read every gravestone.  I think about the people there, wonder about them.  Sometimes, especially if they are babies, I pray for them or even talk to them.  I tell them that today, even if only today, they are remembered.
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When it’s a larger cemetery, I try to walk through as much of it as I can, especially the older sections, which are the most interesting to me.  I make notes about when the earliest burials took place and the names I see, particularly if the names are familiar as local place names.  I take pictures of whatever interests me.
After I leave, I almost immediately start doing research.  Not a lot of research, because I am not getting paid for this!  But I look on the KGIS website to see what I can find out about current and former owners of the property.  I look it up on Find-A-Grave.  I Google for the history of the cemetery, and sometimes do a little genealogy research on some of the people buried there.
By the time I sit down to write, usually something, some angle from which to approach that particular cemetery, will have occurred to me.  It would be pretty boring if all I did was describe the place and post pictures without comment.  I’m trying to tell stories, not just document.
But documentation IS part of what I do.  And if a cemetery is in bad shape, I’m going to say so.  I don’t know why it’s in bad shape, and I’m not making value judgments.  I’m wondering, and I’m raising questions.
For example, in the case of yesterday’s post, this was the first thing that I saw when I drove into Rocky Hill Baptist Cemetery, and it stirred up some questions that I raised in my post.
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I wondered:  WHY is a cemetery with the same name as the church, and right across the street from the church, not owned by the church?  WHY is this sign so emphatic?  If the church used to own the cemetery, why and when did it stop?  WHY would a private association take over such a large and active cemetery requiring so much upkeep?  WHO are the people being buried here now, if not church members or family members (there are lots of new graves.)?
Those were just a few of my questions, and my research answered some of them.  The rest I put out there with the post.  I do that with a lot of these posts, and sometimes I am rewarded with answers!
When I write about cemeteries, I am trying to make sure that the dead are remembered.  I’d like to think that if they could see my posts, they’d appreciate them.  But all I have to go on is the opinions (usually positive!) of the living.
If people get upset because I mention that a cemetery is in need of some maintenance, they are being too sensitive.  I’m just reporting a fact, and I’m not accusing anyone of anything.  In fact, I went out of my way in that post to mention that cemeteries require lots of upkeep and that it’s expensive, which is one reason I was wondering why a private association would take that on.  I’m familiar with the financial struggle my own parish has in keeping up the Catholic cemetery, and the assistance we require from the Knights of Columbus and youth groups for periodic cleanups.  The more cemeteries I visit, the more I see what a problem upkeep is–whether because no one is left to care, or people don’t have the energy, money, or time.  Whatever the reason, it’s a tragedy when the last tangible reminder of a human being’s existence is obliterated.
I have had it suggested that if I’m upset that these cemeteries are in bad shape, then I should come help clean them up. 🙂  But see, I can’t clean up every cemetery in Knox County.  And it’s not my job to do that.  It will be my job to make sure my parents’ (who are both still here!) graves are maintained, and I will.  The job I HAVE taken on is to write about cemeteries, and if it raises awareness of the very real problem of keeping them in shape, that’s a good thing.
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0 thoughts on “The Living and the Dead: Writing about Graveyards

  1. I read your article yesterday and try to read each one. I think the graves are like old houses that have been abandoned and/or neglected for one reason or another. I love your articles and hope you continue to write as you see them.

  2. Just like you, I’ve found cemeteries to be places of beauty. Next door to the nursery is a church and across the road is the cemetery. The church doesn’t own the cemetery though it is named for it. The cemetery property was donated a long, long time ago and it is a non-profit that does an annual fundraiser in mid summer for funds that go towards maintenance. This is one of the few cemeteries in the county where plots are basically free.
    This is the area where I grew up and I’ve walked the graves so many times. Some date back to the late 1800’s. Cemeteries are wonderful places for strolls, readings, or just being. My dad (a cemetery resident) used to say that cemeteries were perfect spots to be alone. After all, who’s going to bother you? 🙂

  3. Helga

    You would love the cemeteries in Germany. There are some pretty old, elaborate grave sites that have fascinated me from childhood on.

  4. LeeBeth Dyer

    Your musings are both beautiful and respectful. I love that you are spending your very precious time remembering those who have gone before us. I,too, like to linger in cemeteries and pay “respects”. I don’t slow to do it often, but can take time to read the moments that you share. Thanks, Leslie.

  5. Pat Hughes Kerschieter

    I just today discovered your musings, I would love to read more. I am facinated by old cemetaries, and found myself wondering them. My husband is as golfer (not professionally) and when we would go back to his hometown, he would golf with his buddies and I would spend that time wondering through cemetaries in his hometown. He is from the Quad Cties in Illinois and they have some really facinating cemetaries! They are old and huge! With a lot of fascinating headstones, a lot of them are huge! Especially the one of the Deere Family, East Moline is the home of John Deere! One of the cemetaries is supposed to have a grave that has a “ghost” dog that sleeps next to his owners grave. My husband and I tried to find it but was only able to find two beautiful baby deers (fawns) roaming among the graves. They we’re so beautful to see. So I don’t see how anyone could call you disrpectful for snapping pictures of their lived ones. Isn’t the reason we leave headstones at all, is that we want people to see it and maybe have a thought to who we were and to have someone know that at one time we too walked this earth? If we didn’t want people to see and remember us, then why have a headstone at all? So thank you for the pictures, I would love to see more, as I’m now in as wheelchair and can no longer walk through threse lovely, peaceful old places on my own anymore.

    1. I’m only just seeing your comment for some reason. There is a post on my blog about visiting a cemetery at Notre Dame, where my son is in school. That was really interesting to me as it was very different from the ones down here. I would love to see the one you mention! I am going to make a point of visiting cemeteries when I go out of town from now on.

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  7. Found your blog today, and appreciate your mentioning of KGIS…we always like to hear how folks find value (hopefully) in our website(s). I was particularly interested to see your cemetery-related posts, and was even able to identify an oversight on our KGIS map due to your previous post about the Byrds Chapel cemetery…seems as though we here at KGIS didn’t have that cemetery properly identified on the map….so we’ll be sure to add it. Great blog!

    1. Keith, I am tickled pink to hear all that, especially that I can be of some use to KGIS. I LOVE your website, both for its research value and just for fun. I especially love all the new aerial maps. I have a strange fascination with knowing how roads used to go and those aerials are helpful to me in figuring that out. Thank you!

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  9. I love that you’re doing this.i often wonder about where my mother is “buried”. She’s not underground but in a mosoleum in Texas, while I’m in Va.
    I’m also in awe of grave sites, especially in Va., that is rich in history. At Zoar I found a grave for the 1st Representative of Va. The sentiment below his name says “An honest Politician”. (Seriously!)
    Keep up your “work”. In fact, it would have honored my mother had her bane been highlighted here. I miss her, still.
    Don’t be discouraged.

  10. This is fascinating stuff! I am originally from KY and now live in SC but walking graveyards became a hobby of mine when I was working on our family’s genealogy. I can’t believe someone would get upset for telling the truth. That cemetery was in disrepair and attention should be brought in the matter. Must have been a guilty conscious.

    1. I love finding someone else who enjoys this hobby! Oh, that person was very very upset with me. 🙁 And she wasn’t the first. I try to be very careful but this is a sensitive topic for some.

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