Monday, December 21, 2009

Tell Me About The Dash

The topic for the January 2010 edition of The Graveyard Rabbit is The Final Resting Place. This theme comes from Colleen McHugh, author of the GYR blog, The R.I.P.PERS. Colleen wants us to investigate how families determine their final resting place. She goes on to say: In today's mobile society, does one choose a place near where they last lived? Or do they return to the place of their roots? Do they rest in a family plot? If so, and if married, whose family plots? How has the determination of the final resting place changed between the time of our ancestors and now?

I have been a lifelong taphophile, drawn to the history and culture of cemeteries and the stories they tell since Thanksgiving Day in 1964 when Daddy died. I was 5 years old and it was only my mother and me left to make all of the decisions about his final resting place. To her credit she explained each step along the way. We already had a family cemetery so that one part was easy.

Daddy’s was the first funeral that I had ever attended. Daddy was 59 was I was born and I am his only child. Daddy was a veteran of both World War I and World War II who was born and raised in Southwest Florida and the Keys. His parents and sister are buried in Homestead, Florida but Daddy wanted to be buried where I could grow up knowing him. I am forever grateful for his choice.

In 1970 my grandmother died tragically in an automobile accident and was buried in the same family cemetery. I learned the sad importance of a cemetery when my mother and her oldest brother Fred got into a fight and my mother bought the remaining 262 grave spaces in the family cemetery so that Uncle Fred and his family couldn’t be buried with the there. Yup. She bought the entire cemetery. If that wasn’t enough, she had her bronze marker put up next to daddy’s that said "Woe be unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites!” Matthew 23:29…Of course she didn’t use the whole verse that would have taken the sting out of it and would not have suited her purposes.

For the next ten years all I heard from my mother was, “If I go before Fred and you change that marker I will haunt you to the end of your days.” And at least once a day for every day of those ten years one of my mother’s sisters or one of my cousin’s would ask, “When your mother dies are you finally going to change that awful marker.” It made me afraid to answer the phone. Of course, once Uncle Fred died my mother changed the marker on her own.

In the years since I have worked in Family Services for independent funeral homes and large funeral and cemetery corporations and I can truly say that I have seen just about everything! My work and passion took me from my small hometown to one of the largest metropolitan areas in the county, Orlando, Fl. Orlando is a transient city, three years is the average time that a person lives in Orlando. It is there where one of my favorite cemeteries in the world is. Not because of its classical monuments but because of it majestic beauty. Woodlawn Memorial Park has been the final resting place for thousands of souls. It was cut out of the vast orange and grapefruit groves of Central Florida. There are over fifteen hundred burials per year! Woodlawn Memorial Park has every type of burial facility that anyone would want from towering mausoleums to single spaces to private family estates to million dollar private mausoleums overlooking a private lake to a beautiful cremation garden. In the cremation garden there are above ground niches, in ground inurnments, cremation benches and an ossuary where a person’s ashes are comingled with others. The options are endless.

I have heard more than once that there are over one hundred and seventy five decisions that a person has to make on the day of a death. I have met a lot of people who, when asked about what they want when they die say 'I'm just gonna be cremated and I don't care what they do with me". Really?? What if your wife buys a new red Corvette and while driving down the Florida Turnpike starts throwing your ashes out of the sunroof one hand full at a time? The gentleman usually perks right up and says that he wouldn't like that!! Oh, so it really DOES matter what she does with your ashes? Cremation is kinda like embalming and a funeral. It is what you do with the body or the ashes that really counts. If you have your beloved Henry on your shelf in the bedroom closet and a new husband arrives in your house; doesn't that make you really, really uncomfortable? Or maybe your new husband? So, where to be buried is just one of the decisions you have to make. I was one of the staff who signed the interment, entombment and inurnment authorizations. Note: if one in buried in the ground it is interment, in a mausoleum it is called entombment and if in the form of ashes it is inurnment…. is this too much information? Imagine trying to absorb it within hours of bereavement.

Sadly, many of the families that I see today have never talked about death and dying. Many families numbly choose a cemetery and other arrangements on the day of death just so they can have it done and over with. Coming from a family that lives to die I just can’t imagine that way of thinking! I would talk with the families and feel out what they were wanting and I would actually ask meaningful questions as to what the whole family’s plans were for everyone else’s burial? I would then find a part of the large cemetery that had enough spaces for the entire family to be buried together then I would hand each person a flag to indicate which grave space that they wanted for themselves. Their own family cemetery within a public cemetery. Most cemetery people never think about the whole family being buried around each other. I have never figured out why? I suppose they just don’t understand the family’s need to be together even if the family hasn’t thought of it themselves. I have seen new parents bring newborn babies to the cemetery to show them off to their late grandparents! Tell me that cemeteries don’t matter. Tell me that families and communities end at the moment of death.

Another thing I wonder about is the fact that we don’t tell our story on our monuments or markers anymore...In the 1950's,1960’s and 1970’s, someone also decided to make cemeteries look like parks with flat bronze markers so that we could pretend that death wasn’t really real and if we went to a park like area we would not be offended by seeing large monuments. Memorial Parks are sometimes beautiful but, most of the time they are unfriendly...the flat bronze markers don’t invite us to wander and linger reading the person’s story...Actually, there isn’t a story, just the, date of birth and date of death and a dash in between ..I want to know about the dash? What was the person’s life like, what did they do? Whom did they love and who loved them? What did they leave behind for us to figure out?

After 9-11 families started to demand that they are able to put up a granite monument with pictures and writing on it for the world to see. There was a silent Paradigm shift...It was then that we needed the comfort of an old fashioned cemetery where we could go to grieve...To tell the story of their loved one....A dear friend recently pointed out that in his opinion Memorial parks are many people's oasis' and that many people find that all of the fuss on marble or granite can sometimes be seen as a vulgar overindulgence. I haven't aimed to make anyone who has a loved one buried in a memorial park feel that they haven't made a thoughtful and loving choice. We all do the best that we can do on that horriable day that we will wish would never arrive.  I admit that since I have begun studying the symbology of cemetery monuments, I have fallen in love with the lost art of gravestone carving and am a bit opinionated!

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a long time politician and State Senator here in Arkansas. He was much loved and was very successful in getting laws passed that helped countless poor people and actually all of us. He was buried in a Memorial Park and will have a flat bronze marker...I am anxious to see what is on the marker that tells his story...I know that there won't be anything to distinguish him from anyone else buried there...There isn't enough room! We all stood in the cold pouring rain to see him home for the last time, his daughter is was inconsolable...I know that there will just be a dash in-between the dates...In a park, you just can’t fall on the monument and sob your heart out... You can’t take a rubbing and can’t read its language. I find it hard to talk to a flat piece of metal. I keep going back to the dash in between the dates and asking it to tell me something, anything.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Oh, Well

Ok, so I admit it...I am strange, weird, coo coo, odd, crazy and my personal favorite...Eccentric! I am all of the afore mentioned but, I really do feel that at 50 I have earned the right to use the word and to call myself eccentric. To earn that title a person has had to be and be called all of the above names and then some. Today, I learned probably one of the most valuable lessons of cemetery lore...Just because someone is the go to, know everything person in any county does not mean that they like, understand and treasure cemeteries!!!!

I just can’t imagine anyone who calls themselves a “historian” not liking or valuing cemeteries? Mitch and I were out for a drive today and looking forward to a relaxing journey into the history of yet another cemetery...this time in Grant County, Arkansas...We stopped at a charming old country store at the crossroads of “in the middle of nowhere and I’ve never heard of that place” two counties east of our home. The old store was completely original down to the meat counter and plumbing supplies, kinda like in classic TV show The Waltons. I stopped in for a Snickers and Coke, the official food of cemetery hunting! The owner of the store was ringing me up and wondering what “strangers” were doing there? In Arkansas and most of the South the time honored past time is asking “what brings you to this neck of the woods”? I could actually feel all of the window curtains being pulled back a bit so that everyone could peek out and see me…

I asked the store owner and a customer if they knew of any interesting cemeteries and or cemetery stories. The owner picked up the phone and called an old timer who “knew everything” about Grant County and probably most of the surrounding counties and “will talk your ear will be hard to get away”...Promises, promises! The old timer asked if we could come over to his house just down the road. So, off we went. I kinda didn’t have a great feeling...don’t know why...just didn’t... One should always listen to one’s inner voice!!! Nothing scary happened, at least not for us….When we arrived at the house the mans wife was happily wrapping presents so he took us to the living room and seated us…After all of the niceties I then I asked THE QUESTION??..Tell me about the cemeteries in this area? The man then immediately crossed his arms and he just shut up!!

Being a lifelong taphophile, I just never think that some people, many people don’t share my cemetery passion. By the way, a taphophile involves epitaphs, gravestone rubbing, photography, art, and history of (famous) deaths and the deaths of just ordinary people. Nothing morbid or yucky...just history and reading the lives of the people who are buried there through the beautiful monuments that they left us ...Civilizations have spent a millennia or more studying the Great Pyramids of Giza and digging up mummies and hauling them all over the world so that we can gawk at them…. So a little cemetery hunting can’t be all bad, can it? After all, people used to put a lot of thought into the symbols that they put on their monuments to tell their story...I feel that it is my obligation to remember and tell their stories!

Anyway, back to the old timer...the locally famous “know everything about the area and you can’t shut him up" man. He said that he didn’t know anything about anything about any cemeteries in the area...So, could I possibly make this conversation more uncomfortable? As those who know me well can quickly answer…YES, I could and did...What do you think would be the last question I would ask before I decided that it was getting dark and we needed to get back on the road to home??? “Can you tell me about your favorite funeral or cemetery story?” I don’t know who got up to get  some yonder faster, me or the old timer! Of course, I didn’t think it was a bad question...Everyone I have ever talked to had a favorite story to tell…Doesn’t it beg the question?? What is the skeleton in his cemetery? I still can’t figure it out, oh well, you win some, you lose some and some get washed away! So, from now on I am just going to stick to talking to the dearly departed and reading their histories in the symbols that they left us...And if someone just happens by and strikes up a conversation I will cherish their stories more than ever! I will let the stories find me….

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Finding Shirley’s Leg

Mt. Ida, Arkansas is a town of about 1200 old timers who really don’t like or trust “new “ people, to say the least. I like to say that families in my neck of the woods don’t just have skeletons in their closets, they have entire cemeteries! My husband, Mitch, is from Mt. Ida so I have some insight and leeway into the lives and family histories. To them I am actually a shiny city girl from a town of 36,000 know regionally as simply “Sin City”. It has taken me a full twenty years to have them look at me with only one raised eyebrow!The forty- five minute drive from my home to Mt. Ida might as well be time travel. Today, at the turn of a new decade in a relatively new century the people of Mt. Ida, Arkansas are happily living in the 1950’s. Don’t mistake it as Mayberry, this little town is in FULL Technicolor... It is hiding somewhere in the Ouachita Mountains of Western Arkansas .we aren’t hillbillies...Just a bit eccentric…

This time our eccentricities have paid off since I have now found Shirley’s leg! The hunt for the leg started when we were catching upon things with a relative and I told him that I was writing about cemeteries...Bill Ed is the kinda guy who has to know just one thing more than you do and THANK GOD  he is that way or I would have never have know about Shirley’s leg..He said that he saw the marker in a country cemetery, as if the main cemetery in a town of 1200 people is high traffic… We first thought that we were looking for Sarah’s leg and we were first told that it was off of a dirt road that winds along the Ouachita River (Wash a tah) so we looked down every dirt road we could find..Mitch would patiently sit in the Tahoe while I got out and talked to everyone I could find...which weren’t too many. In this part of the country you are as likely to run upon a white lightning still as you are a Copper headed rattle moccasin or a family cemetery. Only one of the above do I ever want to see and that would be the cemetery...My country cemetery days are limited to deer, turkey and squirrel season, cold weather sports so as to avoid the scary things...

This is also the part of the country where folks mine or just plain dig for crystals and let me tell you that the folks who dig for crystals are a froggy bunch...(see southern dictionary for definition) Since hearing that “the leg” existed I have been on a mission to find it. We spent days and days driving and asking cemetery questions...My favorite stop was at a deer camp close to one of the cemeteries. From the name painted on the back of a procured state highway sign, I could see that it was the was the Manley Camp and it was just about dark thirty...all was well at the camp to say the least...we stopped mainly because there was a truck parked right smack in the middle of the road. I rolled down the window and announced that we had come for dinner. In this part of the world they would have gladly fed and stories. But, they had beer! No one had ever heard of Shirley’s leg but, each one had a cemetery story of their own...You learn so much if you just ask a question and then shut up. I always let the other person shine and they never let me down...Side note, one of the Manley’s reached under the seat of his truck and pulled out something wrapped in newspaper..I just stood there and acted blonde.We were miles and miles from town and I remind you ..they did have guns. As he unwrapped the newspaper he was grinning like a fox...Then, of course, he had to hide it behind his back and make me ended up being the longest, most perfect crystal point that I have ever least eight inches long and only about a inch and half long..I didn’t get a photo but, I will…

So let’s find Shirley’s leg I had to: don a hunter orange vest and cap, Check...get mud from bumper to bumper, Check...Get to use four wheel drive, Check..Meet strangers with guns in the woods, Check and listen to a hundred unrelated stories, Check...It was a good month!

It was a no go on Shirley’s leg... No one knew anything about it although everyone made me promise that I would tell them the story when I found it! So, it was back to Bill Ed...Finally, he called his brother Steve and BINGO!!! Steve not only knew where Shirley’s leg was, he knew where Shirley was and she was related! To Mitch, not me. I had to put all animosity to Steve aside in order to find “the leg”. Steve and I aren’t exactly on each other’s Christmas card list... Once, in the 1990’s Steve wanted to argue about AIDS so I had to Lay Him Out In Lavender...he has wanted to be “right” and know more than I did about something for the past 20 years so here’s his chance!..Every question that I asked was silently answered with “ you stupid @$%#@” at the end of each sentence…I had looked too long to let this get in the way so we put Steve in the front seat and down the road we went.. Shirley’s leg was never down a dirt road and it was never even close to the river...finally after about thirty minutes we arrived at a very well kept cemetery cut out of the Ouachita National Forrest called Little Fir. There it was right on the south edge of the cemetery, a small grave circled with milk crystals and a concrete block with the name Shirley’s leg and the date painted on the top! I had finally found it and beside the leg was a grave set aside, waiting for the rest of Shirley….

When I was a small child my grandfather, Papa, had his leg removed and we also buried it in the family cemetery...I went with my mother to the hospital and picked up the leg...Papa gave us strict instructions on exactly how to bury it next to the grave where he would one day join it again. I can only imagine that the family of Shirley’s leg also did the same...My aunts and grandmother took turns digging the grave and then we had a do it yourself funeral for Papa's leg complete with scriptures and a hymn “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There”  after that we left the cemetery having never been as smart as to put up a marker named Papa’s leg!

Now, I will have to find Shirley and ask her about the now famous marker simply called Shirley’s leg.

March 4, 2010
Montgomery County, Arkansas
Am I the luckiest Taphophile(Cemetery lover) in the world??? Two legs in one county..Shirley's is at the north Eastern part of the county and Sam's is t the far South Western part..50 miles apart and 7 decades..It would be VERY unlikely that they would have ever even have known of each other!

Look at this!!  In the southern part of this same county I found Sam's leg ..It must be a county wide thing!! Thanks, Cindy Gaston Wilkinson!
This is from Cindy..
"Birth: 1910  Death: 1973
At the age of twelve Sam's leg had osteomyelitis and was amputated with a saw on a kitchen table in 1922 by Dr Stueart and with Guy Fitzwater, a pharmacist from Womble, administering the anesthetic. The leg was buried in the Scott-Wehunt Cemetery, eight miles from the old Swindle farm. Later a gravestone was placed over this site. In gratitude for saving his life Sam bought the doctor a recliner. Sam carried on farm work using a crutch until his death in 1973. Mr Swindle was buried next to his leg.

Ruth, hope Beth sees this!... "

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

You Decide If You Want to Hear This Story?

                          When my grandfather, Papa, lost his leg when I was five, my before mentioned mother and I went up to the hospital and got his leg and buried it in the family cemetery..All of my aunts and cousins were there. But, we never thought of this!  Do ya'll want to hear the whole story???