I know it sounds odd to some, but cemeteries have always been an important piece of my life. These acres of markers and tombstones tell stories, reveal history, and relive memories. So many people that molded my life rest there that a visit is almost a homecoming. A couple of hours here, feeling connected to those you’ve loved and lost, and learning a bit about the lives and history of some of their “neighbors” is a rewarding way to spend your time.
When I was a kid, our Sunday began with Sunday School and church. Then it was home, often with company, for the best meal of the week, frequently fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, banana pudding, etc. This never led to sensible eating. After that fine meal, there was a period where we kids headed outside, and the adults sat around. They usually lamented the fact that they didn’t put down the fork just a bit sooner and maybe even took some short snoozes. It was a ritual back then.
Probably three out of four Sundays, after the company had departed, we’d get in the car and drive by new homes under construction. The county had not started its boom phase yet, so someone building a new house was newsworthy.
But, once a month or so, our Sunday afternoon drive was to the cemetery. At the time, there were just great-grandparents and a couple of other relatives to visit.
The habit somehow stuck with me, and as I became an adult, I continued my visits. Great grandparents were later joined by grandparents, uncles, aunts, parents of friends, cousins, and even more sadly, friends of my age.
Later, my parents were buried in that same cemetery. It’s hard to explain, but a visit there often triggers a laugh and a tear simultaneously. Each time I visit, I recall soldiers in dress uniforms folding the flag as we laid my Dad to rest and the ache of losing my rock as my Mom was interred. My grandmother, that helped raise me and taught me to read, rests next to them.
Near their graves were those of people I had known my entire life. The Reverend that preached funerals for most of my loved ones is a neighbor. His words at my cousin’s funeral, “He was a poet in his soul,” have adorned my upper arm for years. He also performed my first wedding, but the Lord and I have forgiven him for not stopping that in its tracks.
That cousin, whom I idolized as a kid, and became best friends with as an adult, is nearby. I’d guess the rounds of golf we played together and the number of Braves games we attended was in the hundreds.
Three plots down from him is a dear childhood friend. We shared so many crazy times that they could fill a book. We were close when we were young, had a falling out over a young lady as young adults, but were scheduled to get together and officially bury the hatchet on my next trip home. Sadly, a motorcycle wreck ended his young life before we got that done. I feel we had made our peace, though.
The man who, with his brother, ran our neighborhood store, which was the gathering place and hub of all local happenings, lies nearby. He rests in high esteem, as I have never heard him referred to as anything but “one fine man.” He truly was.
The Mother of my cousin, who was my co-conspirator when we, as eight-and nine-year-olds, dynamited the creek at my Great-Aunt’s home in the mountains, is just yards away. She was a wonderful woman, but I also learned to behave around her, as she did not wait for my parents to address my misdeeds with a belt. She was as strong as ever born.
Another cousin is in the next section over. She was a steel magnolia, just like my Mom. A surgical mishap left her in a wheelchair for most of her last years, but it didn’t slow her down one scintilla. She was a great friend to my Mom and an inspiration to me.
So many folks there proudly served in our military, with their service notated on their markers. Over the years, the number of graves that are regular stops on my visits is now in the dozens. Time there seems like a visit with all these folks that played substantial roles in my life and getting to know some new friends as well. The parents of a high school friend are buried there. Although I can’t say I ever met them, he shares my passion for paying respects, so I visit his folks, and he visits mine.
My great-great-great-uncle rests forty miles away in Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville, GA. His impressive marker tells the story of his bravery as a member of the Immortal 600 but doesn’t begin to detail all he accomplished in his life. He fathered a son that was nothing short of a hero as well. A hundred yards from his resting place lies my cousin, who died in a car wreck as a child. His was the first loss of someone in the family near my age, and I always wonder what could have been when I visit him.
Thirty miles from there is the Cumming, GA. cemetery at Friendship Baptist Church. It is the final resting place of several dozen of my family members. My Great Grandfather, a Doctor, a Baptist preacher, and once named Rural Minister of the Year, is buried here. He was a kind and gentle man. Next to him is my Great Grandmother, a Durham, who could have been the source of my Dad’s love of plants. These family trees reach back to the earliest days of what would become our country. These folks all descend from those who fought for our independence. They are near several members of previous generations, like my great-great-grandfather, who married his son’s wife’s sister when he became a widower late in life. My great uncle, who fought and received injuries in WWII, and had the most swagger of anyone I’ve ever met, rests nearby. The stories are endless.
Early in 2020, a couple of my cousins and I became aware of a cemetery in Cumming that had been abandoned over a century before. They both shared my love of history, so we started an effort to track down the ownership, restore it, trace its history as best we could, and get in touch with some of the descendants of those interred there.