Sunday, March 20, 2005

My Day With the Dead 

This has been, ironically enough for Palm Sunday and the first day of Spring, a day in which we obsessed with the subject of death. It's not something Americans like to deal with very much, so we tend to do it very badly when it can't be avoided.

Finding the efforts to be grim in the extreme I spent the day with a better class of dead folk. John Key for one. Andrew Jackson Murphey and Capt. Thomas Belew and his wife Elizabeth and a number of their children. The Johnsons and the Bennetts and several whose names are not known, their lives marked only with rough rectangular reddish rocks of unknown origin.

You see, I have a cemetery in my back yard. Okay, not technically in the yard, but the first headstone is less than 30 feet from my property line. Before the acre on which we live was carved out of the woods, this old multi-family plot was pretty well hopelessly lost atop this little rise.

We bought the land not knowing this little burying ground was back there. When we discovered it we were, as you might expect, deeply affected--but not for the reason you might expect. You see, the graveyard holds the remains of some of the earliest white settlers in this region, people who migrated west out of the Carolinas in the 1840s or so. Their farms and smithies and other enterprises were flourishing nicely when the War of the Rebellion broke upon the land.

At least four of the residents of the Bennett-Belew Cemetery, the most peaceful neighbors you can imagine, took part in that conflict on one side or another.

Did I mention we run a Civil War magazine? Yup. Go figure. What are the odds?

Anyway, the cemetery is horribly overgrown, completely untended for decades at least. Stones tipped, stones broken, stones eroded to illegibility, almost stones entirely missing at the moment because they lie under fallen trees. The layout of the rows in the sections of the various families suggest at least a couple of Belews and possibly some Tosh relatives have suffered this indignity.

We came to Tennessee six years ago this month, and every year one damn thing or another has kept us from working on the cemetery. Wait too long and you get into tornado season, then heat, humidity, poison ivy and oak, snakes and most especially ticks. (I have no idea why it is so but this area is just loaded with the damn things and they creep me out beyond toleration. Not unlike my feelings about Tom DeLay, our own dear Sen. Bill the Cat-Killer Frist and their ilk, now that I think about it.)

Anyway, we've been raking, lopping vines, chopping and chipping away at those fallen trees, and generally busting our butts to make this a nice place for dead people to live in. Going off to do some research tomorrow if the Gordon Browning Library in McKenzie is open, so posting may continue to be sparse. Just wanted to bring up to date my weak and feeble excuses for absence of late.

Oh, and anybody with knowledge of the care and feeding of old cemeteries is cordially invited to share same in comments. Customs with regard to burial of non-immediate-family members (slaves, hired servants, farm hands, casually adopted children, etc.) and methods of marking such burials particularly welcome.

See? We got through a whole post with a headline like this and hardly mentioned either that poor not-quite-dead woman in Florida or Jerry Garcia's old band. The dead are really quite agreeable to be around as long as you don't hound them with a lot of media crap.

corrente SBL - New Location
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The Washington Chestnut
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