By Beverly Hicks Burch
This past weekend I did something I’ve wanted to do since I moved back to East Tennessee two years ago, and that is document some of the grave sites of my ancestors for my genealogy files. Sounds morbid, doesn’t it? Well, it really isn’t. Gravemarkers, headstones or tombstones as some call them are legitimate documentation for the date of birth and date of death for the person in question. They can also contain various other inscriptions such as military, Masonry and dedications.
It just so happened the weekend I chose to go was Memorial Day weekend. Tall & Handsome had a three day weekend and we decided to be adventurous and you, my friends, will hear all about it…this is just the first of my blogs on the weekend. I actually had so much fun that I over did it and I’ve had to rest up to write…darn ol’ autoimmune disorders…but, I digress…
Anyway, after grabbing Mapquest and taking a new route to Grandview Cemetery in Maryville…I was use to coming in from Birmingham, we finally arrived at a road I was familiar with and I was able to guide T & H to the cemetery from there. It was kind of ironic, but within about a mile and a half I could show Tall and Handsome the hospital where I was born and the cemetery where my paternal grandparents are buried. It just goes to show you…birth and death are truly the beginning and ending of life and go hand in hand…it is the natural continuum. It made me think of the old saying “when someone dies, somewhere a baby is born”.
Well, when we arrived at the cemetery, there was, and I will put this delicately, a rush at the cemetery. You see, there was one small detail I had forgotten. In the South, Memorial Day weekend, especially the Sunday before Memorial Day is considered Decoration Day. This is a really big deal…almost as big as tailgating and NASCAR…or, at least it use to be, and it still is with the older folk.
When I lived in my first house we had some precious neighbors, Herman and Lola Lovelady. I was 23 when I moved into that house and they were already in their early 60’s. They were “from up home”…which for them was Winston County, Alabama. Herman and Lola had raised two daughters who had become nurses, married and started families of their own. One daughter stayed in Alabama, and one moved to Atlanta where her husband was an editor on a newspaper and then they later moved to Waco, TX where he was an also an editor.
The Loveladys had a passel of grandkids, but they did one thing, they adopted me and my family as their own and they became my surrogate grandparents. Every year in May, the Loveladys went “up home” for Decoration…and it was a BIG deal…there were pictures. Tables were set up after church, a spread was set (that means there was food), then people sat around and talked…they might even play horse shoes…but, graves were decorated, too…it was kind of a reunion. I always regretted that I never was able to go with them.
This past Sunday when we arrived at Grandview, it was evident some “decorating” had been going on and was still going on. I’d never seen so many people in a cemetery without a funeral going on. I wanted to run to the nearest florist and buy flowers, because I had arrived flowerless. But, I arrived with a digital camera, and stories to tell and a captive husband to listen…not bad in a pinch, huh?
My first order of business was to document my dad’s older brother’s place of rest. Uncle Jay was resting in a tomb…a mausoleum and I had never visited. We pulled up and the first thing I noticed was that it was HOT. (This is one Southern gal that hates…hates…hates hot weather…there, I’ve said it.) We started walking the aisles of vaults…and there were many. Thankfully, they were covered and there was some shade.
After much walking around a bit, I started noticing an…ummm… strangely sweet odor. I asked T & H if he noticed it, and he said, “Honey, it’s just probably the flowers.” Well, ok, but, most of the flowers were artificial. I think he was trying to keep me from freaking out, but I do believe it was the scent of death. I couldn’t stay there much longer. Fortunately, we found our objective on the last aisle, snapped a pic and moved on. I think I want to be buried where I can be exposed to sun and rain and fresh air. My dad called later that evening to see how our outing had gone. I mentioned my experience around the mausoleums to him. (I should interject here that I get my sense humor from Daddy…dry…ironic…etc. and I will say right now, if your reading Mom, stop! Because if you are I can hear you now…you’ll say, “Bev!!” Just skip to the next paragraph.) I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth when he said, “Honey, I noticed the same thing the last time I was up there. I just figured they’d just laid a new one in somewhere.” Like I said…I want to be buried in the sun and fresh air and rain…
From there we drove down to the front of the cemetery and walked around a bazillion times hunting my Papaw and Mamaw Hicks’ grave sites…and, of course, I was looking for an above ground marker. No luck. We decided to drive back down the road, make a pit stop and I called my dad and clarified my info with him. When we drove back to the cemetery and parked, I got out of the Jeep, looked up and the very first thing I saw was Mamaw’s grave. I burst out laughing and I told T & H that was so typical Mamaw…she loved making things hard on folk. We snapped our pictures, paid our respects and moved on to our next objective…Townsend.
On the drive to Townsend, I begin to reflect on burial and death customs humans have and have developed over centuries. Of course, we’re all familiar with the Egyptians and their elaborate royal tombs, the Pyramids and their burial method, mummification. Mummification has actually been found in countries all over the globe and is not exclusive to Egypt.
I thought of the custom in India that forced windows to burn on funeral pyres with a dead spouse, a similar custom that would seal wives and concubines up in tombs in Egypt, Native American traditions that abandoned widows when the clan moved on. Kind of makes you stop and think about our current day custom of leaving insurance money to a spouse after death…darn progression…what were we thinking…women…wake up and smell the coffee! I personally hate being burned at funerals.
During the Victorian era, death was approached with a much different attitude than we have nowadays. There was a certain length or period of mourning, mourning clothes, and elaborate funerals to fit your status in life…far more elaborate than we see today. It wasn’t uncommon for people to photograph their departed loved ones in their coffins and family would take time sitting up through the night with the corpse…the body usually rested at home until the service and burial. Mirrors were covered, clocks were stopped at the time of a family member’s death, there were coffins alarms…just in case some one was buried by accident and some cemeteries were designed like parks. One rather unusual practice (at least to me), was the taking of hair from the deceased and weaving the hair into jewelry…usually a brooch to be worn in remembrance of the loved one.
I thought of a quilt I saw a few years ago. It commemorated the Mexican “Dia de los Muertos”…Day of the Dead. When I first saw the quilt, I thought it was rather morbid and garish…it was full of skeletons and other morbid and graphic images. But, after reading about the inspiration, I understood the quilt was pretty accurate.
The Day of the Dead is a holiday that is observed in the first two days of November in Mexico. Its origins are in a Mesoamerican native Aztec festival presided over by Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of the Dead”. The festival is now held to coincide with All Hallows Eve (or Halloween as we know it).
Today, modern Mexicans know it as a time for families…a time to celebrate the dead and their children. The dead are invited back into family homes. Families meet in cemeteries, spruce them up, decorate the graves with flowers, religious amulets, food, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, have picnics and special food and activities. Kind of sounds like Southern Decoration Day doesn’t it?
Well, my pondering ended when we arrived in Townsend, a tiny little mountain town up the road from Maryville. My dad was born in Townsend. Most of my paternal ancestors were rooted there…their names well known…Walker, Hicks, Dunn to name a few. Townsend has a sign when you first drive into town…”Welcome to the peaceful side of the Smokies.” I hope it stays that way. I fear it won’t. Townsend was the setting for the TV show Christy starring Kellie Martin back in the 1990’s.
It didn’t take long to find the cemetery we were looking for…Myers Cemetery. It’s right off the main drag. Turn right at Weems and it’s across from the visitor center. It’s just a tiny country cemetery.
I found my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents, my great-grandfather’s brother and his wife and my grand aunt’s first husband’s grave…he was a Rough Rider…that was a new discovery!
So, I may not have gone Decorating this past weekend…bearing flowers and what-not, but, I did go with memories and appreciation and a desire to pass on and document the lives they lived. I hope we can all pass that desire on to the next generations. I know that matters and counts…
© 2007 Beverly Hicks Burch All Right Reserved.
© 2007 Beverly Hicks Burch All rights reserved.