by Frank E. Bittinger
On our way home from spending a long weekend at Virginia Beach, my best friend Michele brought up the idea to stop at the cemetery to visit her mother and father’s grave. Many members of her family were buried in Slanesville, West Virginia. I’d never been there before. Michelle wanted to show me the really old, original cemetery back in the woods. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it before the sun started to go down.
Mount Union Christian Church was the standard simple white-sided building, its belfry a cupola housing a single bell. The church was surrounded by the final resting places of its parishioners.
After Michele showed me her parents’ grave, we walked around a bit. Since it had been Fourth of July only a couple weeks before, there were little flags on the graves of those who had served in the military. We stopped to read the inscriptions on their stones. It was twilight, so we could still see well enough. Stars blinked into existence as the sky dimmed.
Other stones attracted our attention as well. Many people had lived long lives, others were cut down in their prime, but the saddest ones were the graves of the children. One pair of tiny tombstones in particular captured my eye. Sharing the same surname, no first names revealed: I figured they had to be siblings. The boy had been born in 1950 and died in 1956. Little sister didn’t live to see her fourth birthday—born in 1956, she followed her big brother to the grave in 1960. With only the years of birth and death listed, I wondered if big brother had gotten to meet his little sister, or if he passed beyond the veil before her birth. I’d like to think they met in the afterlife.
I couldn’t imagine the parents’ grief: losing not one but two of their children so young. Of course, I’ll never know if these were the only children the couple had, but either way it had to be devastating to lose two children so close together.
My skin erupted in goosebumps. The chill I felt didn’t come from the cool breeze. It came from the soft whisper: “What about me?” Very faint. Almost an afterthought hanging in the evening air.
It came again, slightly louder, and I was sure I’d heard it. Looking around, I made certain it was still just Michele and me there in the flesh.
Apparently, someone felt left out.
Michele knows there are occasions when I can see or hear something others cannot, so I felt comfortable telling her about hearing the man’s whisper. She looked around and asked if I could see him. I could only hear a faint voice.
The voice could have easily belonged to any of the cemetery’s residents. Even though it wasn’t a huge cemetery, there were quite a number of graves. It could also have been a spirit attached to the land or one passing through.
As we walked around looking at the graves, I heard it several more times. Plaintive not pleading, if that makes sense; I felt like he was in mourning because he felt forgotten, lonely.
A light breeze stirred the grass and leaves.
“What about me?”
Michele said maybe he didn’t have any family or maybe no one had ever come to visit him. She asked if I thought I could figure out who he was, which grave was his. I’d never tried to do anything like that before, but I was willing to try.
Wandering through the cemetery in the twilight was an experience. I’d traipsed through a cemetery in the rain on a Saturday afternoon, during a photo shoot to promote my novels, but this was different. Not eerie or creepy. More like somber, sad because here was this man asking not to be forgotten.
“What about me?”
I can’t really explain how I felt, but I was led to this man’s grave. I don’t want to say it felt like I was playing a game of “Hot or Cold,” but that is essentially what it was. The feeling of being right intensified when I was getting closer to him and diminished if I took a wrong turn or walked too far away.
We found him in the most unlikely place. A pine tree stood in the cemetery, one with low-hanging limbs. I just felt the need to look around the tree. I used my foot to scrape brown needles and leaves around. Lo and behold, there sure as hell was a flat gravestone under there. Not just any grave—and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way—but the grave of a military man. Using my lighter to see by, I knelt down and wiped until his name was revealed.
I knew I’d found the final resting place of the man who’d been whispering to me. Here was the only military grave in the cemetery that didn’t have a little American flag on it.
What I found unusual was this man had a footstone for his military service but no headstone at the top of his grave. I wondered if that had been an oversight. Maybe he shared a headstone with someone else and I just couldn’t see it. But it was very strange for his footstone to be at the base of this pine tree, under the branches and pine needles. Perhaps the tree just grew there over time, its limbs overshadowing this flat, rectangular footstone set in the ground, shielding it from easy view.
If Michele hadn’t believed me before, she sure did now. She got it as soon as she read the inscription on the stone.
“I think he thinks he’s forgotten because no one gave him a flag,” she said. “And look how his marker looks like it’s sunk into the ground.” It was true: the gentleman’s footstone was a little below the surface. Grass grew up and over the sides. “So easy to get covered over,” Michele said as she leaned over to take a closer look.
“I think so. Either the flag or because he doesn’t have a headstone.” I hoped he knew we were talking about him. I said, “You are not forgotten, so don’t think you are. Thank you for your service.”
I felt like he heard me and knew Michele and I appreciated him.
Never having been to this churchyard before, it would take a lot of coincidences for me to stumble upon a grave hidden beneath the limbs of a pine tree and for that grave to be that of a military man. I believe in coincidences, but this didn’t have anything to do with coincidence. I truly feel this lonely spirit — feeling forgotten, especially after the Fourth of July — led me to his final resting place.
I walked away feeling like I’d done something really good for him. I hoped he wouldn’t feel lonely or forgotten any longer.
Two years later, I asked Michele if she would be willing to take me back to the cemetery. She said yes, she wanted to place some fall decorations on her mother and father’s grave. So we drove down on a nice sunny Sunday. I wanted to visit the grave of the soldier who had whispered to me. Someone had trimmed the lower limbs on the pine tree; I was pleased to see they no longer draped down over and obscured the footstone of the soldier. Once again, I knelt down and wiped away pine needles. “I told you, you’re not forgotten.”
I hope to be able to visit him again, hopefully before another two years have passed. Michele said we should make the commitment to drive the hour-plus at least twice a year together.
Over the centuries, Frank Bittinger has experienced many existences. In this incarnation, Mr. Bittinger is a vegan who lives and writes in Western Maryland, sharing his home with a menagerie of rescued animals, several alternate personalities, and the occasional ghost. One of his favorite pastimes is taking walks in old cemeteries in the evening.
Frank’s books include the Scarabae Saga (Into the Mirror Black, Angels of the Seventh Dawn, Angels of the Mourning Light, and Shadows Amongst the Moonlight), As Dark As I: Evangelium Scarabae Volume I (coming in Spring 2016), and These Ghosts of Mine (a nonfiction collection coming in 2016). He’s also written What’s It All About? Alfy!, a poetry collection to benefit the rescued animals of Jollity Farm in Cornwall, UK.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.