Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Visit With the Dead

When my mother died, in 1971, I quit my job, bought a motor home, and took off in an effort to...what? I didn’t know and am still not sure. If it was to get away from thoughts of her death, it didn’t work, and I found myself in a cemetery in Mobile, Alabama. Here’s the entry I wrote on December 20, 1971, the 60th day of my odyssey.

Mobile, Alabama. 12:40 p.m.

Cemeteries―real cemeteries, not those modern supermarkets of the dead―have always held a special fascination for me. There are few places more peaceful, generally more quiet, and more awe inspiring. I feel something of an obligation, a willing duty, to walk among the graves reading the tombstones and thereby performing the function for which the tombstones were erected: to remember the dead, and to know they once lived.

The Church Street Graveyard was founded originally as a burial place for Mobile’s yellow fever victims. The headstones, grave covers, sarcophagi, monoliths, and markers are marvelously varied. The words carved on them, unfortunately, are fast becoming illegible―many are already gone, with only the barest outline of words, and names, and dates remaining.

But those, like me, who read cemeteries as one might read a novel find in them a fascinating chronicle of an era.

The most striking characteristic, other than the visual effect, of the Church Street Graveyard, is how young most of its inhabitants were when they died. (Though there is one old gentleman who was 105 when he died in the mid 1830s). It strikingly illustrates the fact that in the 1800s, life was short. The average age of Church Street’s residents cannot possibly be over 35. (“In Memory of Elizabeth, Wife of Matthew McCartney, who departed this life Dec. the 11th, 1834 in the 17th year of her age.”)

There is the fine print of history: “In memory of Stephen Hopkins Clarke, son of John H. Clarke of Providence, Rhode Island, who died in Florida in July 1837 in the 22nd year of his age. As a Volunteer, he was engaged in a skirmish with the Indians, and received a wound which shortly proved mortal. Thus at once the high hopes of youth and the expectations of Friends were blasted forever.”  There is a deep-seated comfort in the fact that had he lived a full, full life, he would still be dead today; and those who mourned so sincerely and deeply at his passing are now themselves long dead. There is, incidentally, more to Stephen Clarke’s story, engraved on four sides of a squat pillar. “Erected in 1845 as a memorial of his love for a dutiful and affectionate son. From the rude sepulcher to which he was consigned by his commander, his remains were transferred to this spot by an affectionate Brother. It is consecrated by the warmest recollections of all who knew the integrity and manliness of his character.”

And so Stephen Hopkins Clarke still lives in the minds of those who read these words.

How much better than two of ten thousand identical brass plates (flush with the ground for easier mowing) saying “Frank G. Margason 1911-1968" and “Odrae L. Margason 1909-1971" How much of them is there?

In older cemeteries, one can read the history of an entire family, with microcosmic hints of many sorrows and lost causes.

A low brick wall topped by an ornate green iron fence proclaims the square to be occupied by the family of I.D. Spear. In it is a tall stone pylon, & two lesser headstones. To the distant sound of 
drums, we read on one side of the pylon: “In memory of Frank M. B., son of Isaac D. & Sarah B. Spear. He was born in Louisville, KY on 22nd of September 1843 and was killed in the battle of Shiloh on the 6th of April 1862, aged 18 years, 6 month, and 11 days. An early Christian, he died with the bravest, fighting for his country’s independence.”

Could a more succinct resume of the Civil War and its tragedy be found? Who can read it without wanting young Frank back again, to hold him and console him for all his lost years.

The rest of his family? We know his mother died first, for the other side of the pylon reads: “Sacred to the memory of Sarah B., wife of Isaac D. Spear, who was born in Mobile on the 31st of January 1822 and died on the 14th of February 1860, aged 38 years and 17 days.”

Frank was not quite 16 when she died. There were two infant children who died almost without having lived, but their birth dates and deaths are not recorded. Only, on a small stone (in the best condition of the three): “Daisy, Infant daughter of I.D. and S.B. Spear, aged 6 months, and Ikie, aged 7 days.”

And then we have the third stone; the most badly eroded of the three, a rounded slab. Probably the younger brother of I.D. Spear, though no relationship is mentioned. “In memory of Nicholas M. Spear (Illegible) of New York, who was drowned in Mobile Bay June 7, 1857, aged 25 years, 4 months.”

Of Isaac D. Spear himself, there is no trace. If Frank were his only surviving son at the time he marched off to Shiloh, then perhaps Isaac had no one left to bury him, or provide a memorial.

Nicholas, too, died very young and one wonders about him. Did he die while out for a swim, or fishing, or on one of the numerous accidents which apparently were so common (two other gravestones in Church Street comment on their occupants’ deaths in two separate steamer explosions. We cannot know, but we can care).

But who, 100 years from now, will stop at my dad’s grave, or my mother’s, and wonder who they were and what their lives may have been? Who can envision them walking and laughing and talking with friends, or going shopping, or arguing over the gas bill? They're now nothing but a few flat words on a flat, metal plate. How inhuman we are becoming, when our dead are allowed to die.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (


Kage Alan said...

I've never thought of a cemetery like you do in terms of something to read...and I love that you pointed it out as such.

Perhaps your question about your own parents' graves and who will stop, read the stones and wonder who they were can be addressed. One can always add a little something to each stone that reads: "For more information, please go to (insert site, which could be your own site or one of your books)."

We should do that for our own.

Charlie Cochrane said...

I love old graveyards, too, especially ones with military graves. There is a lovely one near Brockenhurst with lots of NZ soldiers who served in WWI.

Have I told you about the war grave I look after?