by Trilby Plants
I love cemeteries. They are the keepers of memory and history. Every graveyard holds secrets and surprises. No, I’ve never seen a ghost in one, but I’ve seen family history in them. I’m an amateur genealogist and have visited cemeteries from New York to Iowa, searching for ancestors.
I knew there were two generations of my husband’s ancestors buried in an unnamed graveyard on Route 20 near Warren, New York. I’d found the information online, the burial place of my husband’s three- and four-times-great grandfathers and their wives. We had been there once before, but it was winter and we couldn’t locate some gravestones in the snow.
The next time we visited, I brought a collapsible shovel, as I intended to dig perhaps six inches of soil away from a tipped-over stone so I could take pictures of the whole inscription, and a wire brush to clean off lichen.
A fairly steep hill led up to the graveyard, with slate steps set in the slope. Some of the steps were broken; many were missing. It looked as if there had once been a wall that had collapsed. A narrow, mowed path led uphill. I was more mobile than my husband, so I promised to take photos.
Armed with my shovel and brush, I started off. The track curved around to the cemetery, which was a flat area halfway up the hill. The site was about half the size of a football field. It was surrounded by a dense stand of old trees that shaded the graves and cut the noise from the road.
Silence greeted me, along with the smell of freshly mown grass. I was surprised that an unused graveyard had been mowed. Several small American flags were stuck beside stones.
I walked a circuit of the cemetery, looking for other possible family members. Many of the stones and small monuments leaned or had fallen over. There were no other names I recognized, but in one corner I found the grave of a child with the family name I was looking for: Josephine Ely, who had died in 1847 at the age of five and a half. The surnames on the gravestones around her were not Ely. Perhaps she had been buried with a wife’s family, or was illegitimate. I probably will never know.
I took photos and then looked for more Ely gravestones. I found them in the center of the graveyard, one leaning and one tipped completely on its side. The letters on the tipped-over stone were partially readable: Simeon Ely, died June 19th, 1840, my husband’s three-times-great-grandfather. On the stone beside that one, only the name was barely visible: Margaret, his wife.
I was looking for this man’s father.
Beside these plots were two stones on their sides, the lettering on both completely illegible. Because there was an American flag by the stones, I assumed these were the father and his wife: Simeon the elder and Ruth. That Simeon died in 1817. He had served in the Revolutionary War army for two months, guarding the arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts.
I set to work on the toppled stone with my shovel. I intended to excavate a small area so I could take pictures of the entire inscription. I had dug up perhaps four scoops of soil when a large snake slithered out from under the stone. I shrieked and ran.
Telling myself it was a harmless garter snake, I gathered my wits and went back. The snake was gone, so I continued digging. I enlarged a trench around the stone, brushed away the lichen, and got my photos of the entire inscription.
I spent a moment contemplating the graveyard. Unlike the previous time I’d been there, it was a warm summer day under a clear, blue sky. A feeling of peace stole over me. The view over the valley was stunning. Afternoon sun reflected gold off a small lake in the distance. The trees and fields gleamed verdant green.
This is memory: the stories of those departed who pass their histories on to the living.
This was where Simeon Ely the elder had come after the Revolution to farm and raise his family. His son Simeon, although born in Massachusetts, grew up here. Simeon the younger lived to see his son born, but did not live to see his grandson born: my husband’s great-grandfather, James F. Ely, who enlisted in the Union army in 1861. James was wounded at the battle of Petersburg, Virginia. He survived a musket ball in his thigh, barely avoiding a leg amputation.
I have been to both James Ely’s grave and the Petersburg National Monument, where he was wounded.
All this history bore down on me when I considered that one of my great grandfathers — from near Watertown, New York — had also enlisted in the Union Army, but was mustered out after a couple of months because of a leg injury he had suffered while farming. Had my ancestor stayed in the military, he would have been at Cold Harbor with my husband’s ancestor — and also at Petersburg.
The coincidence of all that staggered me. It placed my ancestors and my husband’s in the real world.
The sun was going down and we still had one more graveyard to visit, so I gathered my supplies and started back to the car. I met a man who was driving up the narrow track. He rolled down his window.
What do you say to someone who confronts you as you’re walking out of a long-unused graveyard, carrying a shovel? “It’s not what it looks like,” I said, holding up the shovel and wire brush.
“Good,” the man in the car said. “I hope I don’t have to call the cops.”
I explained what I was doing.
He lived behind the cemetery. He and his wife were the unofficial guardians of it. He had a contract with the county to mow it in the summer. No, he told me, vandals had not toppled the gravestones. Time had done that, just as it had scoured the inscriptions from many of the markers. One of the earliest stones marked the grave of someone who had died in 1806.
He was interested in who I’d come to visit. He had an ancestor or two buried there he said, but he didn’t know the family I had been looking for.
“What about the flags?” I said.
“The wife and I get a list from the local VFW,” he said, “and we put them out on Memorial Day.” He shook his head. “Just the two of us. Nobody ever comes to see a ceremony. Then a week later, we take them down and save them for next year.”
“It’s good that somebody remembers,” I said. I showed him the digital photo I’d taken of my husband’s great-great-great-great-grandfather’s unreadable stone and the flag beside it.
“What war was yours in?” he said.
“Long time ago. Lots of wars ago.”
It was. But I will remember, and so will my husband. Hopefully, now that there is so much online, our children and grandchildren will see pictures of the gravestones and know their ancestors’ stories and their places in history.
When I returned to where my husband waited in the car, I told him about my encounter with the snake and the man.
“I’m glad I don’t have to bail you out,” he said. When he looked at the pictures in the digital camera, he became quiet. “Wow,” he finally said. “There’s a flag.”
“That’s the one,” I said.
I looked out across the valley. “I see why they came here. It’s great farmland.”
We left the gravestones behind, but not the history. Our history lives like ghosts of the past in the images that populate the Internet and in our memories and in those of our children.
Trilby Plants writes for children and adults. She lives with her sports junkie husband in Murrells Inlet, SC, where she writes, knits and creates video book trailers for authors. TrilbyPlants.com
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. The submissions guidelines are here.