Headstones, Deadstones

by Henry Swain

A year does not pass without someone coming to a Brown County Commissioners meeting requesting maintenance on a road to a remote, no longer maintained, cemetery. A comprehensive book compiled by Helen and Ken Reeve catalogued and described ninety-one cemeteries in Brown County, the smallest with an occupant of one. Many are family plots located somewhere on the original farmstead.

Cemeteries have a fascination for most of us. The reason, I suspect, is that many of us will likely choose a cemetery as our final residence. Cemetery scouting is much like looking for your retirement home, as your last residence before you die. You want to check out the neighborhood to see if the grounds are well kept, and make sure it is quiet and the grave markers not too competitive.

I suppose my fascination dates back to high school days when my brother and I got the summer job of maintaining the two cemeteries adjacent to the rural Quaker Meetinghouse that was within sight of where we lived. The old cemetery was plotted in 1834 when the Meetinghouse was first established.

Its capacity was reached in the late 1800s when a new, larger cemetery was plotted. The stones in the old cemetery were modest oval or square topped sandstone slabs about eighteen inches wide and two feet high. Some of the older ones were so weathered it was difficult to make out some of the lichen-covered lettering.

There were a few Civil War veterans, but there were many more graves of infants who died at birth or within the first five years. These stones reflected the scarcity of good medical care in childbirth, and childhood diseases for which there were no vaccines. Even the adult generation died at a much younger age than the present generation.

The new cemetery contained later relatives of my own family. The gravestones indicated more prosperous times than those of earlier generations. While the stones were still modest they were of more permanent granite, some with polished surfaces. Family plots began to be identified by a larger marker etched with the family’s name.

I must admit that spending so many hours mowing over the dead, forced me to think more about life and death at an age much sooner than most. Cemeteries hold volumes of history that stir the imagination. I wondered about the mother who lost two infant children.

How much more difficult the grieving must have been for her, considering the hardships of primitive living. How did the farm families cope when their son returned from war in a coffin? Who replaced the son who was to help dad on the farm and carry the farm to the next generation?

The emotions they experienced were not that different from today, except farm families then were closely knit by tradition, and were more dependent upon each other. Children of families now, are likely to be scattered across the country. They return home for the funeral, then go back to their jobs and their own families, with little understanding of the traditional family of previous generations.

Some of today’s cemeteries are moving toward flat markers flush with the ground. This makes for easier maintenance, not having to mow around the stones and clip the grass around them. My early cemetery mowing experience makes me sympathetic to the motive.

Something is lost, however. Missing is the individuality of the stones and the craftsmanship of the stone carvers. Rush-to-the-ground markers do not gather lichens, nor do they age with a patina of history. One gets the feeling in a contemporary cemetery that no one resides there. Where is the history of the family plot?

Old cemeteries had a lot going for them. The rent for the residents was prepaid. They were a quiet bunch. If the place was fenced, it didn’t matter if you forgot to lock the gate. No one ever got out. Relatives came to pretty-up the place on Memorial Day. All previous animosities were settled at the funeral. I can’t think of a place where people get along better. No matter how good I try to make the place sound, as long as I can push a mower I’m in no hurry to join them. I’d still rather mow over than be mowed over.