Of Southerners and Cemeteries

Near the hearts of most Southern towns lie old, public cemeteries nestled under great oak limbs that shelter the graves from the hot summer sun’s glare.  In them, uneven rows of old and new stones mark family plots, each family segregated from neighbors by fences or cement coping or space.  Unkempt, such graveyards contrast sharply with newer burial gardens that cater to those survivors who want perpetual care of green lawns broken only by flat bronze markers spaced evenly under the intense sunshine.  I prefer the old-style burial grounds, their cool tranquility, their story-telling tablets, their comforting breezes and bird songs, perhaps because I grew up in them.

When, in 1953, my family moved to a new South Carolina home less than a block from it, the Varnville Cemetery was well established in pine woods between town and Wade Hampton High School a couple blocks further out.  Only dirt roads carried the dead and their mourners to grave sites.  No signs pointed the way or identified the spot because everyone who needed to know had grown up knowing exactly where it was off Pine Street.

Although Kay, Sandy, and I, only five, eight, and nine years old, had been threatened by our mother with possible residence in that cemetery if we went that unmarked way, we took advantage of her daily nap most summer afternoons to climb out our bedroom window and run barefoot down the dirt lane, seeking shade, cool breezes, and adventure.

Among the headstones, we read again and again the record preserved there of Civil War and World War soldiers, of infants dead before they lived, of whole families lost at once.  We learned the names of our neighbors: Stanley, Polk, Varn, Hay, Rivers, Mixson.  We chose favorite stones, our “most favorite” the one marking the grave of Jennie Liza Walsh, born November 29, 1891, died December 15, 1904, because watching over little Jenny from the top of her marker was a baby lamb, signifying to us the tiny lamb of God buried beneath the white sand.

Afraid of being found, we carefully hid behind tall grave markers the rare times someone else visited the dead, and we stayed well away from the road that snaked mysteriously from the back gate.  Although we dared not set foot on a grave, we did walk the copings, climb the gates rusted shut, and tiptoe the edges of pedestals to cross the grounds without touching soil.  While we were playing and exploring that way one day, disaster struck—despite all our care—but a disaster we could never have envisioned.

While tiptoeing around a tombstone inscribed “H. C. McMillan / May 9, 1840 / February 27, 1917,” a tombstone that had stood tall on its base for almost forty years, I slipped.  In a second, I and the granite slab together fell.  As I landed face-up, tree limbs high above me, solid concrete grave marker pinning me to the sandy ground, and rusted-iron Confederate soldier’s cross gouging my back, I knew instantly that Sandy, Kay, and I (especially I) were in the most trouble ever.

For one thing, I was lying on top of a grave!  For a second thing, I was covered by a massively thick, heavy stone from my shoulders to my knees!  But for a third, far more important thing, if she found out, Mother would surely carry through on her threat!  Sandy, more afraid for me than of Mother, ran toward our home about a block away, screaming for help.  Kay and I, far more afraid of Mother than anything—including at that moment cemeteries, graves, the dead, or even God—screamed for Sandy to return and help us.  She finally did.

But again and again, Sandy escaped to run toward home just as we three, I from underneath, they from above, had struggled almost enough to free me and failed.  Every time, Kay followed to coax her back.  We could shift that stone, but no way could we lift it or move it far.  Painstakingly, after what seemed hours and with none of  us knowing how, we managed to shift the stone enough for me to wriggle in the deep sand and slide from under it.  Then and there, on the late Mr. McMillan’s grave, we pinky-promised never to tell anyone about the cemetery, the stone, or my ugly scrapes and bruises.  Sandy, scared for me, told anyway.

As hard as it was to believe then and is even today, Mother turned as pale as I was when she saw my injuries.  I remember that she called Dr. Hayne, who was concerned enough to make a house call, and, impressed by my survival, pronounce me “one lucky little girl.”  I don’t remember Mother’s punishment, but neither the punishment nor the experience discouraged our visits with the late Varnville families.  I still loved that cemetery.  A few days later, our father hired three men to help him reset Mr. McMillan’s gravestone onto its pedestal, the iron cross still planted there at its base.

By the time I was a teenager, I had introduced my friends to the graveyard solitude—a solitude that encouraged confidences.  I and Betty Detrick or Sarah Simmons sat facing each other for hours on the large Chisolm family stone near the entrance, lamenting teenaged girlhood, solving the riddles of parents, school, and boys, and dreaming our futures—not necessarily in that order.  Under those oaks and pines, we had found what most teenagers seek—a special space, a quiet place away from adults wondering what we were up to and siblings wanting in on our lives.  In fact, for me it was a place too special for one Southern rite of passage—parking in cemeteries on dates.  Whether because it was close to my home or too holy or too scary with that snaking road that left by the back gate even in the dark, I don’t know, but I never dated there.  My surprise was all the greater for that when, forty-two years after the tombstone incident and thirty-two years after I had left the neighborhood for college, I discovered that I did indeed celebrate that parking rite of passage in another cemetery without even realizing it.

In September 1963, two months before we were married, Everett and I went to two different South Carolina cemeteries.  First, we toured the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles Cemetery in Barnwell and then his hometown cemetery in Denmark, both where members of his family are buried.

After seeing the oak-sheltered graves, much like those I knew in Varnville, we drove through the back gate of the Denmark Cemetery and down a dirt lane.  There, on that warm Sunday afternoon, in a sun-dappled pine forest, my future husband saw me standing nude for the first and last time until we were married.  The adventure was strictly “look, but don’t touch,” but he said ever after that the mental picture he made that afternoon was the way he always saw me.  Often in the next thirty-two years, he teased me about “that day we went to the Denmark cemetery,” but, a bit embarrassed by the memory, I really didn’t think about exactly where we were when I stood bared before him.

When Everett died suddenly, unexpectedly, in Delaware in March 1996, I wept, and prayed, and searched desperately to decide where to bury him.  We had talked about cremation—our preference—but I knew his mother would never embrace that possibility nor bear well the pain it would bring.  We had tentatively agreed that if we had to be buried and if I died first, we would be buried in Varnville; if he died first, we would be buried in the Denmark family lot we had not visited since that Sunday in 1963.  Finally, I settled on taking him home to Denmark for burial.

In the backseat of Everett’s Uncle Rahn’s car on our way to the cemetery to choose Everett’s grave site, I was not at all sure that I could leave him anywhere that far from me for any time, much less forever, not at all sure I was doing the best for us, for him or for me.  Then, as we rode through the front gate, I saw across the way, far across the cemetery and outside the back fence, a little stand of trees: the sun-dappled grove where we had parked and I had stood naked for him more than three decades before.  The realization of where I was, where he and I would be together again, was magical.  For the first time, I thought I might be able to leave him somewhere for just a little while. I even smiled, thinking how he would have laughed the moment I recognized one of his favorite places, one of his favorite memories.  I had found, under a moss-hung oak, the best place I could find for him.

A day later, waiting in the limousine before the graveside service, I told our sons the story, and, although other mourners might have wondered at it, our laughter was appropriate.  We left him there waiting for us, all our memories keeping him as alive to us as he was one September Sunday afternoon long ago.

Another fourteen years passed before I had to make a cemetery decision again—that time with my siblings.  Although our parents had stated that they wanted to rest finally in Meadowlawn Memorial Cemetery in Enterprise, Alabama, an unusually pretty bronze-plaque graveyard where their parents and siblings are buried, Mother had buried Daddy in the Varnville Cemetery to wait until she died and they could both be buried in Alabama.

But at her death, we siblings, including Sandy, Kay, and me, had to ask ourselves where we should bury our parents: Where would we visit their graves?  Where had we and their grandchildren known them to be almost all our lives?  Where had their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren terrified themselves and each other playing “flashlight” and “ghosts,” even dressing in ghostly white and jumping behind markers to entice passing drivers to wonder what they had glimpsed?  Where did they belong?  When Betty or Sarah or my siblings or I or anyone else now ventures into the Varnville Cemetery to visit the late denizens of Varnville or just to ponder the stories of those honored there, all our parents lie waiting and watching, our mother and father safe inside the mysterious back gate.

Cemeteries and the people they keep are central to the lives of Southerners, literally and figuratively.  We mourn, research our roots, play, park, grow up, read our history, and mull our future in our cemeteries, until, finally, we meet Jesus and rest in them under a protective oak and pine canopy.

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