Tag Archive | Cemetery

Grandparents

IMG_3083 (534x800)One day recently, I found myself longing to talk with my grandmother. There was nothing in particular I wanted to talk with her about; I just wanted to have a chat: to comment on the beautiful afternoon, to tell her about the stunning view I was seeing, and to let her know what is going on in my life.

This longing came over me because I was standing by her gravestone in the Chapel Hill United Methodist Church cemetery in Sequatchie County, Tennessee, the place where she was laid to rest after she died 15 years ago this summer. Well, it was the place where half of her was laid to rest. When she died, my dad and my uncle deferred to their sister to decide where she would be. My aunt had been the one who had done the most to care for their mother in the last years of her life; she helped make the arrangements to see that Grandma got the care she needed, and she and her daughter went to see her almost every day. Aunt Susy decided that she wanted Grandma to be remembered with a grave in the small town in New Mexico where they had lived since the early 1950s. But she also realized the importance of Grandma’s connection with her family in rural Tennessee. So she put a stone and a portion of her mother’s ashes in the public cemetery in their town, and she put another stone and the other portion of the ashes in the church yard, up the street from Grandpa Hamilton’s farm where she was born 88 years earlier, right next to the grave shared by her parents and her sister, Ellen. It seemed like a fine arrangement to me.

In some sense, it was strange, though, to have this longing to talk with my grandmother. I don’t believe I had ever felt such a longing before. I knew my grandmother as I was growing up, but we never lived close to her. Every year or two, she would come to visit us, and she made a special effort to make it to big events like graduations and weddings, even when the trip was hard for her. We would go and visit her, too, for holidays or on family road trips in the summer. My dad would talk with her on the phone. My mother would write her letters, and as I got older, my mother would help me read the letters Grandma sent back. And when my grandmother sent a five dollar bill in my birthday card every year, my mother would make me write a nice thank-you note, detailing how I spent it or saved it for something special later on.

Although I knew my grandmother, I knew that she loved me and was proud of me, and I loved her as much as I could, my longing to have a chat with my grandmother did not come from warm nostalgia of memorable conversations with her. Instead, as I stood in that church yard, I felt a longing in my soul to belong somewhere in this world. For good or for ill, friendships, professional relationships, church connections, and even marriage are all understood in the postmodern world as personal choices. I felt the need to be affirmed in a connection that went deeper than that. I wanted something tangible I could see and touch and listen to and speak with to reassure me that I would be welcome whether the one welcoming wanted me there or not. Seeing that slab of granite which represents my grandmother, sharing an eternal resting place on a hill with her parents and sister, I wanted to sit and visit a while.

After I left the church yard, that unexpected longing had not gone away, so I drove the forty five minutes or so to the Bean-Roulston Graveyard, where portions of six generations of my ancestors have chosen to spend eternity, including my grandfather. He died in 1962, eleven years before I was born, so I only know him through the memories my father and other family members have chosen to share with me. A few years ago, I had a chance to ask my dad’s cousin about my grandfather. She said he was very attractive and very charming, and she always found him quite likable.  But he was also never settled, and she always thought his troubles later in life tied up with his feeling of never being really satisfied where he was.

My grandfather died when he was only 46 years old, a week after his daughter’s wedding. By the time he died, he had been divorced for five or six years. He was an alcoholic, and although his younger sister had taken him in and cared for him when he had surgery to treat his colon cancer, he had alienated much of the rest of his family with requests for money and other kinds of help over many years. His only friends in town were his drinking buddies. And so it fell to my dad, at the ripe age of 24, to take care of him as he was dying and to make arrangements for his burial after he died. I remember seeing my grandfather’s death certificate in a trunk my dad keeps in the garage when I was young. It listed his place of death as a “sanitarium” in Albuquerque. I didn’t know that was just another way of saying that my dad got him into a hospital before he died, rather than letting him die in the apartment my dad rented for them with his wages working for the railroad in the last months of his father’s life.

I don’t know, but I imagine that my dad had help from his aunts and uncles with my grandfather’s burial; it is neither easy nor cheap to get a body from New Mexico to Sweetens Cove, Tennessee. He is buried in the shadow of his own parents’ gravestone. Next to their large stone, which reads “Beene:  The Family of Mamie and Roy,” are his siblings who died young: his brother Lemuel, who was not yet two when he died in 1910; his brother Alton, who died of appendicitis at age 12, four months after my grandfather was born in 1916; his sister, Clara, who was what we would now call developmentally disabled, who died in 1932 when she was almost 30. In the two rows in front of my great grandparents, though, are their sons who survived: Uncle Pete, Uncle Jack, and M.C., my grandfather. Those are not their real names; they were nicknamed at birth by their grandfather, “Wash” Coppinger, whose imposing plot is directly behind his daughter, Mamie, and her husband.

Looking at that plot in the Bean-Roulston Cemetery, I saw the grace of God for my grandfather. I let myself imagine that he had found there a peace that comes with being settled. He belonged there: connected to people whom he both charmed and frustrated when they were all alive, who welcomed him back into that place when he died too young, who were connected to him in a way that went deeper than simply a personal choice.  I enjoyed a picnic supper with my grandfather that evening. I am sure he had no idea what I was eating; as I spread my roasted red pepper hummus on crackers, then scooped out my Greek yogurt flavored with blood orange, I could only imagine how his face would have gone from puzzled to indignant and back to puzzled again. At least he probably would have recognized the Triscuits. But it was a calm evening, with only the cows bellowing in the field on the other side of the stone wall to disturb the peace, and we had a nice time. The memories of that evening calm my soul.

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Cedar Grove Cemetery

As my dog, Otis, and I explored our neighborhood today, I got to thinking:  little can subvert the power of modern suburbs like a cemetery.

At one time, the land I live on was a small part of the Cedar Grove Plantation.  I have not been able to learn much just yet about what happened on the plantation:  the precise boundaries, the lives of the owners and slaves who lived here, what they grew, how they came to be here, or the answers to any number of other questions.  What I know is that after the Civil War, a group of freed field slaves came from a plantation on St. Catherine’s Island, down the coast a ways from Savannah, and settled on a portion of the plantation.  A few years later, the owner of the plantation, John Nicholson, sold 200 acres of his land to those freed slaves, who set up the community of Nicholsonboro.  Part of that community’s land was developed in the mid-1980s into the suburban neighborhood where I now live.

In looking for information about Nicholsonboro and Cedar Grove Plantation, I ran across a reference to a Cedar Grove cemetery.  According to a newspaper article from 15 years ago, some of the settlers of Nicholsonboro were buried there.  My imagination started to make some connections.  Of course:  the old plantation would have had its own cemetery, where at least the slaves would be buried. After the plantation began to be subdivided, new residents of this land would live and die and probably be buried in the same place.  A cemetery would not be bulldozed to make room for the tract after tract of houses which now fill the area that was one time the plantation.  So, the cemetery must still be around here somewhere.

I was curious.  I searched online for Cedar Grove Cemetery; none of the mapping services could point me to a Cedar Grove Cemetery anywhere in Savannah. The only references I found were in the archived obituary pages of the Savannah Morning News, offering only information like, “After graveside services in Cedar Grove Cemetery; a repast will be offered in the church hall.”  These references only gave me hope; people are still being buried there, so it must still exist.  I tried driving up Cedar Grove Road, which turns off of the main White Bluff Road some distance north of my street, but that only led me through another suburban neighborhood and to a fence surrounding the grounds of the Savannah Country Day School.  After a chance conversation at work last week led me to a website called “findagrave.com” I finally learned that the Cedar Grove cemetery is at the end of Largo Drive.  So this morning, I put my dog on the leash and headed that way.

Largo Drive is a main thoroughfare through the Windsor Forest subdivision.  At its southern end, it is lined with moderately sized, single-story, ranch-style homes on average size lots.  They look like they were constructed in the 1970s or 1980s, although they are very well-maintained.  Some of the homes have brick facades, some have wood or vinyl siding, some have a tasteful mix of both.  Most have two-car garages and driveways to match.  They have well-kept lawns, many of which have one or two large oak trees in them.  As I approached the end of Largo Drive, I saw several American-made pickup trucks hitched to flat trailers parked on the side of the streets, a familiar site in neighborhoods where lawn services are contracted to mow and trim.  I saw a middle-aged woman taking a handful of items through her wooden gate to the trash cans in her back yard.  I saw an older man on a motorized wheelchair passing along his driveway, looking like he was ready to do some chores on the other side of his fence.  It is a quiet, pleasant neighborhood which seems to fulfill all of the promises of a suburban development:  cleanliness, order, comfort, privacy, and relative affordability for the middle class.

I came to the end of Largo Drive.  At the end of Largo Drive are some barricades placed by the city traffic department.  They are painted with reflective paint in diagonal orange and white stripes.  They are set up in a way that it makes it clear they are intended to stop any traffic, auto, pedestrian, canine, or otherwise, from traveling beyond the end of that street.  On the other side of the barricades is a tall, wooden fence, which defines the back of the yards of the much-newer houses in the next development over; that is a gated community, and the developers apparently didn’t want to put in an additional gate, not to mention lose a couple of developable lots, by extending Largo Drive into their tracts.  Between the reflective barricades and the tall wooden fence, though, there runs a gravel-covered alleyway.

I was confused; there was clearly no cemetery here at the end of Largo Drive.  More exploration was necessary.  Otis and I could just fit through a careless, narrow gap in the traffic barricades, so we entered the alleyway and headed to the right.  The alleyway was lined with the high wooden fence of the new development on one side, and the wooden fences delineating the boundaries of the back yards of the ranch-style homes on the other side.  Between the alley and the fences on each side were trees and brush which shaded the gravel we walked on.  Soon, the wooden fence on the side by the older homes changed to a chain-link fence, and we could see a plot of land where no house stood, only trees.  In front of us was a gate.  The “Find a Grave” website had warned that the 10-foot fence surrounding Cedar Grove Cemetery would only be opened by the caretaker at the request of a member of the family of someone buried there.  But today, the gate was wide open, so we walked in.

Parts of the cemetery were well-kept; parts were cluttered with weeds and old arrangements of funeral flowers.  A section of the hollow steel pipe which topped the chain link fence along one side had been bent low by a fallen limb.  Some grave stones stood proud and gleaming, while others had faded or broken.  Some of the graves were clearly very old; a couple others bore dates from 2011 or 2012.  Several of the graves were built with vaults surrounded by brick which stand above ground, topped with concrete, probably owing to the proximity of the marshes and Hoover Creek a few hundred yards away.  In a couple of these, the name and relevant dates of the deceased were written in the concrete top by a finger,  rather than chiseled in block letters by a skilled craftsman or engraved in a bronze plaque like on the other graves.  Several of the stones noted important service rendered in the lives of the people they remembered:  “PVT 1st Class, US Army, WWII,” “Deacon of the Church,” “Loving Mother.”  A number of older stones lay on the ground; one or two still stood, albeit somewhat eroded, and I noticed that the date of birth inscribed on at least one was before the time when life for the slaves on Cedar Grove Plantation was interrupted by the secession of the Confederate states and the subsequent war.

As Otis and I explored, I realized that it felt like the cemetery didn’t want to be found.  It had hidden itself down the narrow alley, behind the houses, surrounded by tall oaks and chain link.  The weeds gave it a wild feel.  Sharp-pointed burrs grabbed onto my socks and shoelaces, and one even jabbed itself into my dog’s front paw, requiring both Otis’ teeth and my fingers to try to get it out.  I am not sure why that cemetery doesn’t want to be known.  Maybe its desire for privacy is driven by deference to the pride of the honorable people buried there.  Maybe it wants to show respect for the grief of the mourners who seek peace and comfort in the face of death.  Maybe it feels some shame for its disorder in the midst of the lawns which are so meticulously cared for by the contractors driving those pickup trucks hitched to trailers lining the streets a few yards away.

Despite its attempts to be lost, though, the cemetery still took up that space.  And I found a significance to its steadfast witness in the middle of the modern suburbs.  Suburban neighborhoods like those I walked through and the one I live in were designed, laid out, and developed to feel like nothing occupied the land before them.  They promise that they will be clean, ordered, comfortable, and private for the people who live in their houses.  They are modern, not only in design but also in philosophy:  they embody the triumph of human ingenuity, technology, and power over nature, over history, over poverty, and over just about any other force which might introduce confusion or disorder or chaos into our lives.  They represent progress, so all that is in their view is the present and the future.

But no one would dare to bulldoze a cemetery, so it remains, and as it remains, it forces its neighbors to look to the past.  It remains as a reminder of the plantation which once occupied the land now taken up by the suburban neighborhoods.  It remains as a reminder of the evil foundation of the plantation system:  the idea that a person can gain personal wealth by owning another human being and requiring that human being to work until he or she dies.  It remains as a reminder of the chaos of war, of the disorder which comes after the defeat of an evil system, of the confusion of what to do when the inevitability of death hits each of us in the face.  It remains as a reminder of the nature of nature:  of trees whose limbs can crush a suburban fence, and weeds which poke at domesticated life, of rain and wind which erode our memorials to honorable soldiers and deacons and mothers.  And as it remains there, surrounded by tall fences and well-kept houses and lawns and driveways, its power subverts the promise of the suburbs, and along with it, modernity itself.