As the year dies, it is only natural that our thoughts turn to musings on our own mortality. For Catholics, Halloween is not only about pumpkins and trick-or-treating; it is the eve of the Feast of All Saints, followed immediately by the Feast of All Souls, days set aside for us to remember and pray for the dead.
As we get older it becomes harder to ignore the fact that every second that passes brings us that much closer to our own deaths. Children, for whom time seems almost to stand still so that the time between Christmases feels infinite, usually don’t think about the inevitability of death as we do.
But children will encounter death, some sooner than others, and how we prepare them for this and help them deal with it when it comes is important.
There doesn’t have to be some big moment where you sit your kids down and explain death to them. Better for it to be introduced early, before they can really comprehend it, as a natural process. You can start with what your kids encounter as they play–dead insects. If they’ve heard you talking about the fact that an insect is dead from infancy, they’ll always have at least a vague concept of what death is, which you can flesh out later when they have questions. Tell them that the insect got tired and old and its body couldn’t work anymore, so it was time for it to die.
When they ask questions about their own eventual deaths or yours, it’s best to reassure them by saying that they–and you–are still very young and it will be a long time before you die. There’s no need to muddy the waters at this point with discussions of death by accident or illness. Sadly, there will no doubt come a time when you will have to answer those kinds of questions.
My children had their first close encounter with death when my grandmother died. They were 16, 13, 12, six, and three at the time. They knew Mima well so they were definitely affected by her death and I felt they should be a part of it. We told the little ones that, like the insects, Mima was old and her body had worn out, but we also added that she had gone to Heaven to be with God as we all hope to one day. (I personally don’t think that it’s particularly necessary or useful to bring up the concept of Purgatory with little kids right when they are grieving the loss of a loved one.)
We took all the kids with us to the funeral home. The open casket was at the far end of the room and we let the kids decide whether to approach. Lorelei and her cousin Ella, who were three and five at the time, were interested and spent time looking at Mima. William, who was six, did not want to look at her and stayed at the other end of the room. The children also attended the funeral Mass and the graveside service.
It’s very important not to impose your own–or other people’s–expectations or interpretations on the grieving of children. They may not look as upset as you think they should look, but don’t make assumptions. When my dog was hit by a car when I was four, I was very upset, too upset to even talk about it. I will never forget an adult making the comment that it didn’t seem like I cared very much. So keep in mind that your children may need space to grieve, or they may need for you to draw them out so that they can express their feelings or ask questions. I was very impressed by a friend whose husband died when their son was about ten years old. He wanted to go sit with his friends at the funeral. Some people might have insisted that he sit up front with the family but she gave him the space he needed and allowed him to find comfort with his friends.
Many children’s first experience with death is the loss of a pet. My children experienced this for the first time a couple of years ago, when we had to put our elderly dog to sleep. Lorelei and William accompanied me to the veterinarian and we all supported each other. I was proud of how brave they were and how they comforted our dog through the process, constantly petting him and reassuring him with loving words. When kids lose a pet they will almost certainly ask you if the pet will go to Heaven. The best answer I’ve heard to that question is that when you go to Heaven and want your pet, he will be there.
Like everything else, children will learn more from your actions around death than your words. Do you talk about how you miss those who have died, or do your avoid discussing uncomfortable feelings? Do you pray for those who have died and encourage your children to join in? (That’s when you can explain about Purgatory!) Do you lead by example by attending funerals of those you know whenever possible and encouraging your children to come when appropriate?
My grandfather died when I was 13, and his was the first funeral I ever attended. For years I was uncomfortable with the whole idea of “viewing” the body, and dreaded going to funerals. But forcing myself to attend many out of a sense of duty and obligation over the past several years changed my attitude. In one tragic week several summers ago, a high school friend’s son committed suicide, the father of one of Teddy’s football teammates died in an accident, and the father of one of his classmates committed suicide. I took Teddy to the funeral of one father, and he accompanied me to take food to the family of the other one. Set an example for your children with your actions when death touches you, and encourage their participation, and they will internalize the value of these rituals and will not fear them.
This post is part of the Catholic Women Bloggers Network Bloghop. For more writing on this topic, click below.
Growing up, I spent every Friday night at my grandparents’ home, only a few blocks away from my own. And we were often in and out of their house during the week as well. Like as not, when I walked in, I’d find my grandfather sitting in the living room in his favorite chair.
My grandfather wasn’t what you’d call a smiley man. His resting face was grim. But he’d beam when I entered the room. “Hi, Granddaughter!” he’d say.
Always I remember him in that chair, his ash tray stand to one side, the table with the reading lamp and the clock with the numbers that flipped on the other, his feet propped on the ottoman while he watched the nightly national news, or Lawrence Welk, or his soap operas, or as he read Time, Newsweek, or U.S. News and World Report.
Sometimes I’d watch t.v. too, with him cautioning me not to sit too close to the big cabinet television with the record player in one end of it. “You won’t be able to have children when you grow up,” he’d warn me. Sometimes we’d play checkers on the ottoman.
Granddaddy died on September 24, 1980. It was my first encounter with death. I remember entering the house for the first time and dreading the sight of that empty chair.
When my grandmother decided to relocate to a retirement community, my mother moved into the house, and the furniture Mima couldn’t take was given away. My little sister got the chair. I took the Naugahyde recliner from the basement (which I believe was the predecessor of the chair I’m writing about). It didn’t last long–my kids have always been hard on furniture.
I love old things and I love family things, and over time I had filled my house with items from my grandparents’ house. I was the one who took that cabinet t.v., even though it didn’t work anymore. I had the oil pastel portraits of my grandmother and great-grandmother, the Seth Thomas clock that used to hang in the living room, and so many other treasures that I took because I appreciated them and had room for them. When our house burned down almost five years ago, I lost it all. And felt guilty for being such a poor steward of family heirlooms and memories.
We’ve lived for five years in a house furnished by the love of friends and family. We’ve even added a few heirlooms from John’s grandmother’s house. Over time, the furniture has become ours, safe and familiar.
My sister moved at Christmastime. She decided she didn’t have room for Granddaddy’s chair and she asked me if I wanted it. She knew how much it would mean to me to have it. It found a new home in our family room.
I had visions of spending time sitting in it, but honestly it isn’t a very comfortable chair, at least not for me. Emily sits in it sometimes, but more often than not it’s inhabited by cats. Still, it makes me happy whenever I see it.
You’ve probably passed this little church and cemetery hundreds of times on your way to Turkey Creek. Maybe you’ve never even noticed them. At the corner (sort of–the road has been closed here) of Dutchtown and Lovell Roads stands the little Concord Mennonite Church, still open although with a congregation of only about 25 souls.
The congregation has been around since the 1870s, the building since 1887. A group of Pennsylvania Dutch, led by one John Stoltzfus, came down from the North to start this church (hence the name of the road, y’all).
This is a small and very well-kept little cemetery, mowed, trash-free, and with most stones readable and in good repair. There’s not much if any burying still going on here, but at least some graves are still being visited.
The stones and inscriptions are typical of the other cemeteries I’ve visited, including the familiar lamb stones signifying the death of a child.
The names are not as familiar. They are–predictably–mostly German, and apparently many of the congregants left the area over the years. There was one distinctly non-German name that was a big surprise to me, though:
Della Myrtle Raley was my great-grandmother. Raley is an Irish name, and I was immediately curious about exactly who old WT was and what he was doing in a Mennonite Cemetery. I can’t yet answer the second question, but I can tell you that his full name was William Thornburgh Raley and that he was my first cousin thrice removed. Our common ancestor is my great-great-grandfather, Daniel Raley, who is buried in Carr Cemetery in Union County (more on the cemeteries of Union County another day). To put it another way, WT and Della were first cousins and surely knew one another.
Isn’t it strange to imagine what this area must have been like when Tennessee John (as he came to be known) and his family arrived in this area? I found the following online in a Knoxville application for the Historic Register: “Loveville (Lovell) was a rural community about one mile east of Campbell’s Station and was named for Robertus Love who settled there around 1797. Loveville contained a tannery, rope walk, store, blacksmith shop and cobbler’s shop. The businesses gradually disappeared over the years, and most were torn down when Kingston Pike was widened in the early 1940s. Cavett’s Station, Campbell’s Station, Ebenezer and the communities of Erin (Bearden) and Loveville (Lovell) were all located within a valley of approximately twelve square miles, Sinking Creek Valley (also called Grassy valley) in west Knoxville” (remember Grassy Valley Baptist Church–AHA!).
Now, granted this was some years later but I’m willing to bet that Loveville then was a lot closer to the Loveville of 1797 than to the Lovell of 2014. I tired to produce picturesque shots for this post by editing out as much modern-day ugliness as possible, but it was hard. Just look at the contrasts:
It occurs to me that we owe a debt of gratitude to the people who founded churches and their accompanying cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Progress” has destroyed Loveville, leveled its blacksmith and tannery and general store. But the God-fearing folk of East Tennessee are a lot less likely to knock down churches and dig up graveyards. Oh, it has happened, I know. I have forebears who lie in cemeteries that were created so that TVA could flood their previous “final” resting places. In fact, some of the folks in this cemetery were relocated from Karns for the construction of the high school. But it’s not as common. And so we still have a little left of this
albeit surrounded by this
and for that we should all be thankful.
When you start paying attention, cemeteries start popping up EVERYWHERE. Seriously, just take one day to pay attention to how many of them you drive by. You know how it is, when you see something every day you sort of stop seeing it at all. So last Saturday I decided to visit two cemeteries that I pass on a regular basis.
First stop was Grassy Valley Baptist Church Cemetery, which is located at the church of the same name at the corner of Lovell Road and Kingston Pike.
This isn’t your secluded, peaceful location, as you see above, though I suppose it was way out in the country when it was founded in the late 1880s. Here’s the original sign:
You know what they say about East Tennessee–there’s a church on every corner. And most of them look more or less like this one:
This is a nicely kept cemetery, especially given its proximity to a major road and businesses. It’s trash-free, the grass was mowed, and the broken stones were minimal, although there’s always room for improvement:
This cemetery is full of Kirbys and Llewellyns. Wow, there were a lot of them. Which made sense when I looked it up afterwards and found that the Kirbys donated the land for the cemetery and the Llewellyns donated the land for the church.
Woody, Gray, and Grady were other common names. The church was founded in 1880, and I think 1890 was the earliest burial I saw, with the latest being in 2003. That one was the spouse of someone who had died a long time ago, though.
I saw no evidence that this is an active cemetery. Most of the burials took place from the 1890s through the 1940s. But people are still visiting the graves:
Every graveyard I’ve visited has baby graves. Every graveyard is the final resting place for people who lived long and happy lives and people who met with tragic and early ends. I wonder about the stories behind some of the stones I saw in this one, and feel so bad for parents who lost their children:
Also notable here are ornate stones with long and unusual inscriptions. I wish I had been able to decipher them all.
Grassy Valley Baptist Cemetery is a pleasant and beautiful oasis in the commercialized ugliness of Kingston Pike, a reminder of what this area must have been like in earlier (and not that much earlier) times.
My original plan for Saturday involved a graveyard I pass near frequently in my current location in Northwest Knox County. And I did visit it, but it just wasn’t that interesting. (Oh, I will tell you about it later–don’t worry.) But I felt unsatisfied and then Third Creek Baptist Church Cemetery crossed my mind.
I grew up in Cumberland Estates, and this cemetery sits right on its border, so I rode past it on a daily basis for about fifteen years. My cemetery obsession having arisen in my adult years, it had never occurred to me to visit. Isn’t it strange how places you pass every day are so much a part of your landscape that you don’t even think twice about them? Just look at the above picture–that church has been in the same location for going on 200 years. What a wealth of history has taken place there and I never even realized it.
I have mixed feelings about this graveyard and maybe part of that is flavored by the difficulty I experienced parking! For whatever reason Third Creek Baptist has their parking lot shut up like Fort Knox. There are two entrances and both had those gate things locked across them. I pulled into one drive thinking it connected with the back lot, but I was wrong and had to back up down a hill, and I ended up parking in one of the spaces out front and walking to the back lot, where I was informed I was under camera surveillance. Not exactly the welcoming and peaceful atmosphere I usually get when I go on these graveyard pilgrimages.
There’s a driveway off the back lot that goes to the adjoining property, which until a few years ago was home to an ancient blue relic of the Victorian era, long empty. They also have a picnic area up there, and I’m going to be charitable and assume that they are locking the place up to prevent hijinks from occurring.
This is a pretty cemetery, hilly and with mature trees.
Someone is faithfully mowing the grass, but that’s apparently all the maintenance anyone cares to do. I couldn’t read most of the stones. I’m definitely going to have to start wearing my glasses when I do this, but I also need to look into ways to make the stones more readable. I’ve learned that some cleaning can do more harm than good, but many of these were just muddy. And I hate not being able to read them. That it was a sunny day made it harder because of the glare.
Y’all, this place made me sad. Take a look at the condition of the tombstones below and the palpable lack of concern by . . . someone. Descendants? The church?
Many of the unbroken stones are askew, although I don’t suppose I have a right to complain about the settling of the ground. This graveyard is one long hill and which possibly is not the best situation for burials.
I know this is far from the worst cemetery out there. I’ve heard horror stories about some around town that are completely hidden by foliage and strewn with garbage. I don’t know the resources that are available to the church for taking care of the cemetery, and I don’t intend to found a society for the preservation of historic graveyards (at least not any time soon!). But having issued all those disclaimers, it still seems a shame to me that the memories of the people who lie here are obscured by the condition of the stones, and so much history is less available than it could be. We all lose out when that happens.
A lot of the stones have inscriptions that look like they’d be interesting if they were readable. Or maybe some of y’all can read them. (The ones above were actually some of the most readable.) As I may have mentioned a time or two, my eyes are not what they used to be.
The majority of burials here seem to be from 1870 -1930 or so. There was one 1959 burial, but that was beneath a stone shared with someone who had died in the 30s. So despite remaining space, this is no longer an active cemetery. I was surprised by the lack of earlier burials, but I have a sneaking suspicion they are here, just not marked any more. Or perhaps some of the stones I couldn’t read have earlier dates. Below are a couple of shots of the oldest grave–1843–I found, which happily has a memorial stone that was added later. I live right off Hickey Road and I wonder if this is the man for whom it is named.
If you looked closely at some of the inscriptions above, you’ll have seen Weavers, Fergusons, Keiths, and Warwicks, all familiar Knoxville names. Weaver’s Funeral Home is right nearby. Keith Avenue isn’t too far away. One of my paternal great-great-grandmothers was Perlina Warwick McNabb. This is part of what I love about old graveyards. I also saw Nickle (Nickle Road and Nickle Lane are on the other side of Cumberland Estates), Lowe, Osborne, Mays, Minton, Matlock, and McClain. There were others, of course, but these were the names I saw repeated over and over, the families whose roots are buried deep in this area.
I can’t end this post without a baby gravestone, this one a little unusual:
I can make out the names–Pearl and Jewel–and the word “young” but that’s all. With those names and buried under one stone I’m assuming they were twins and ended life together just as they began it together.
Oh, I’m so terrible. It’s so nice of everyone not to mention that I claimed I was going to blog every day during Lent. That didn’t last long. I have GOT to figure out a way to carve out the time to blog every day. Trust me, my silence does NOT indicate a lack of things to tell y’all about!
I’m still trying to make a graveyard visit every weekend, and except for one soggy Saturday, I have accomplished that. Yesterday I checked out Edgewood Cemetery.
It’s a newer graveyard, having been established in 1928, but it encompasses an earlier burial ground: The Gallaher View Baptist Church Cemetery, which is still the property of the Church it sits directly behind.
I first became interested in this cemetery a few years ago when I happened to be driving up Kingston Pike and took my eyes off the road long enough to notice the graves up on the ridge. This is a pretty large cemetery, and the long expanse of silent graves offers an interesting counterpoint to the unbridled commerce just below.
This is a cemetery that is currently being used (there was one grave only a week old), and it is beautifully kept–nice to see after some of my recent jaunts. The grass is cut, the space is clear of broken branches and debris, and all the stones are in one piece!
Given its location, the most memorable feature of this graveyard is the view, and it’s impressive in all directions.
Y’all, I might have gone just a little bit crazy taking pictures of the view!
Another item of note: the grave markers. I have never ever seen such massive ones. I didn’t have anything with me to show scale, so you’ll just have to trust me or go see for yourself.
The Knoxville history buffs among you will appreciate the array of family names: Walker, Gallaher, Lones, and others. Visiting graveyards brings Knoxville history alive for me. When I was a child, Vanosdale was a road we took to drive to the Mall. To old-time West Hills residents, I think it’s the name of a farm. But when you are in the graveyard, it’s the name of a family, and I will think about them the next time I drive there.
Those stones are from the original cemetery, and that’s where you’ll see more ornate and unusual markers. The rest of the place is fairly standard as modern cemeteries go, with a lot of large markers with family names and then the in-ground plaques to commemorate individuals. There were a few creative ones though, that let me “get to know” the people who lie there (or in the case of this one, who will eventually lie there):
Entering a new graveyard is always a little adventure. There are almost always surprises, stories, mysteries.
You will see stones that make you sad.
You’ll see stones that will make you want to know more.
And you may even see some that make you wish you knew less.
I had to run an early-morning errand today, leaving the house while everyone was still sleeping. On the way, I passed two graveyards I’ve often meant to explore. With no plans scheduled until later in the day, and expecting that everyone would probably still be sleeping at home, I promised myself I would stop on the way back home.
Perhaps exploring graveyards early on a sunny Saturday morning isn’t your idea of a way to treat yourself, but it’s a favorite pastime of mine. One of my earliest blog posts detailed my discovery of White Oak Flats Cemetery, hidden away behind the touristy main drag of Gatlinburg. I’ve also briefly shared my visits to the final resting places of some of my ancestors. There is an old cemetery in front of the church where Lorelei played Upward Basketball this winter, and the last morning we had a game I made sure to take a look at it. My 14-year-old nephew, looking at the graves with me, said, “I don’t like cemeteries. They remind me of my mortality.” But I love them, and I tend to think more of immortality when I’m in one.
See, as long as your name remains visible on a stone, and as long as someone comes by to read the names, and wonder about the people who bore them, how they lived, why they died–you are still a part, albeit a small one, of the living world. It’s important to me, that these dead people be remembered. That the living remember where we come from. Maybe that’s also why I enjoy genealogy.
I don’t care so much about visiting the graves of loved ones I knew in life; I have other ways to remember them. But visiting the gravesite of a long-dead relative is different, providing a tangible connection you did not have before.
But I digress. None of my Tennessee ancestors settled in North West Knox County, so I did not expect to see any of them today. I did hope, though, to come across a familiar name or two–people who once lived where now there are only roads bearing their names and making them still familiar to us. My first stop was at Byington Cemetery, and rather obviously Byingtons are prominent residents therein. But besides the cemetery, the Byingtons left their name on two nearby roads that I often travel: Byington-Solway Road and Byington-Beaver Ridge Road.
Unlike the bucolic locations of the graveyards in Union County where so many of my ancestors are buried, the Byington Cemetery looks lucky to have escaped relocation, like many older cemeteries. It’s at the corner of Oak Ridge Highway and Emory Road, at the Karns red light, and is surrounded by commercial development, unfenced, unmarked.
My second stop was at the cemetery next to Ball Camp Pike Baptist Church, which is quite close to my house. According to my son, this cemetery is frequently visited by ghost hunters and is reputed to be very haunted. But I don’t believe in those kinds of ghosts.
The interesting thing about this graveyard is that it has been in used since 1820 and is still active today, with the most recent interment I found taking place in 2007. However, despite its status as an active cemetery, it’s in a sorry state of repair. Many gravestones were mostly unreadable, even ones that dated as late as the mid 1900s. Several were knocked over and broken, even while others bore recently placed Christmas wreaths.
Due to its status as a church cemetery, this was much larger, and has a fence around the front and barbed wire hidden in the woods on the non-church side. It’s on an extremely steep hill, and surprisingly if you make it all the way up there you’ll find that people live up there, their homesites apparently only accessible via driveways at the back of the church lot.
All other considerations aside, I like graveyards because they are beautiful and peaceful. Usually it’s just me and the dead folk. There’s a reverence in the air, and there’s nothing wrong with considering sometimes that we all came from the same place and are all going back there one day, but that whether, how, and for how long we are remembered will depend on what we do while we are here.
Deaths, that is. Maybe it’s just the constant desire to look for patterns and meanings, but I’ve found it to be true.
I remember one day last summer on which I attended a memorial Mass in the morning, took a meal to a bereaved family that afternoon, and went to a benefit for a grieving mother in the evening. Three deaths, all tragic, all in the same week.
You already know I lost my cousin on All Saints Day. He did not want a memorial service of any kind, and his family abided by his wishes. I was disappointed, because I love funerals. Besides the closure they provide–which I think is necessary to the grieving process–I love family funerals for the opportunity to connect with people I don’t often get a chance to see otherwise. Now no one enjoys funeral when the person has died tragically and way too young, but a funeral for one who has lived a full and long life is another story. This evening I attended a visitation for the mother of a family friend, a lady I did not know personally. She was 93 years old, and the room was packed with relatives and friends, both hers and her sons’.
Earlier today I attended a funeral Mass for a true patriarch of our parish. George Willard was baptized at Immaculate Conception 86 years ago. Married for 56 years, he and his wife had seven children, and each of their 21 grandchildren carried up a rose at the Offertory. Toward the end of Mass the oldest son spoke of his father’s childlike faith, and indeed one of my lasting memories of Mr. Willard will be the way he always approached the altar for Communion, with his hands together in prayer–not clasped carelessly at waist level like most adults, but palm to palm in the manner of a little child.
While the tears flowed freely throughout the service, the joyful spirit of the event was evident from the opening song: “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In,” and it seemed like a good portion of Knoxville was in on the celebration when we exited the Church to the sounds of the Veterans Day Parade proceeding down Gay Street just at the bottom of the Summit Hill.
Come to their aid, O Saints of God,
Come meet them angels of the Lord.
Receive their souls, O holy ones;
Present them now to God Most High.
May Christ who called you, take you home
Angels lead you to Abraham.
Receive their souls, O holy ones;
Present them now to God Most High.
Give them eternal rest, O Lord,
May light unending shine on them.
Receive their souls, O holy ones;
Present them now to God Most High.
I know that my Redeemer lives,
The last day I shall rise again.
Receive their souls, O holy ones;
Present them now to God Most High
I do believe that, even though I’m not a fan of the book. But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
There are those who spend their lives longing for Heaven, longing to escape this vale of tears. At my Aunt Iva’s funeral I remember the preacher talking about how lucky she was to be rid of this terrible evil world. But I believe the world. although fallen, is a good place, because God created it and it reflects His majesty, His power, His goodness. I’m in no hurry to leave it.
There are those whose faith focuses on that “heavenly reward,” who try to “be good” so that they will go to Heaven someday, or for whom salvation in the next world is the whole point of religion. I try to “be good” because following Christ demands it, not because I’m worried about making it into Heaven some day.
But this week I have been thinking about Heaven, because my faith tells me that’s where the people I have known and loved who have died are now. And all of us who have been touched by the untimely death of my cousin on Friday have been able to smile through tears thinking about him reunited with his wife and his mother and father.
So it’s not pearly gates and golden pathways that I’m looking forward to experiencing some day–rather it’s a continuation of the loving relationships that have been interrupted by death.
Just as God gives us loved ones and does not lose them in giving, so we do not lose them in returning them to Him. For life is eternal, love is immortal, and death is just a horizon beyond which we cannot see with narrow, earthly vision.
– Author Unknown
That’s what I always called him, and how I will remember him, even though he was long since “Joe” to everyone, even his brother and sister. But he was Joey to me, my big grown-up cousin, more than a decade older than me so seeming like an adult even in my earliest memories. Always sweet to his little cousins, showing off how big and strong he was (though he was as skinny as a rail) by offering to let us punch him in the stomach as hard as we could.
He died early this morning, his illness quick, unexpected, and brutal: strokes, possibly a heart attack, amputation, gangrene. It’s hard to believe someone could be driving around on Monday and be terminal by Thursday, but that’s what happened. Nothing could save him.
His life was not unmarked by suffering. His father died tragically in 1976, when he was barely into adulthood. His first wife died very suddenly almost 13 years ago, leaving him a widower with three children. His mother, whom he was counting on to help with the kids, died just two months later.
There were some tensions in his family, and his illness offered an opportunity for healing to begin.
He died on All Saints Day, the first day of this month which the Church dedicates to the remembrance of the dead. I like to think there is a wonderful heavenly reunion taking place this morning.
Please pray for his wife, for his three children, and for his brother and sister, the last ones left in their family.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.