To a family historian, every cemetery is special. The stones reveal vital information about when the people buried there were born and when they died. If a stone marks an ancestor's grave, it tells us that one piece of our search is over - we have found the spot where a loved one placed him to rest in peace.
Or have we?
Several recent incidents made me wary about accepting that Grandpa really is lying in repose under that marker.
Little country churches didn't always have a plan when it came to burying folks. Graves aren't always in neat, tidy rows. Some people could afford only a headstone, and others lined the burial spot with rocks or copingstones. Some placed concrete slabs over the entire length of the grave between head and foot markers.
In just such a setting, the first disturbing story unfolds in rural north Georgia. Someone at the Old Everett Springs Baptist Church Cemetery in Floyd County decided the hodgepodge arrangement of eclectic gravesites made mowing the grass difficult.
The solution: Remove all that coping, the footstones and the slabs - just throw them away. "And while we're at it," someone must have said, "let's move the headstones and put them in neat little rows. Perhaps no one will notice that their ancestors moved."
Whoever moved all the stones did so with little care; no concrete was poured to secure them to the ground. Now they stand insecure and wobbly.
But someone did notice. Pat Millican, head of the county's cemetery preservation committee, is fighting mad. She's calling descendants to arms, asking for family photographs that show how the graves looked before the mowing crew took over. From the photos Pat has seen so far, some of the stones no longer mark actual gravesites. She has promised to keep me apprised of what I hope will be a victory to put things back the way they're supposed to be.
None of my family is buried in that cemetery, but many survivors of the Confederate 23rd Infantry are. That means they fought with one of my great-grandfathers. I take what's happening there sort of personally.
New stone is proper way to honor veteran
The next story is about some good intentions right here in Hillsborough County. On July 2, skimming the morning paper, I almost choked reading about a woman who found a discarded tombstone under her Clay Pit Road mobile home.
The stone was marked Russell B. Leigh, and he died in 1961. Doing a little digging at the local library, Kim Peters discovered that Leigh was buried at the Keystone United Methodist Church on Race Track Road, 25 miles from her mobile home.
Her first thought was that someone had stolen the tombstone. Cemetery officials could only speculate that perhaps the stone had never been put on the grave. The cemetery records identified the funeral home that handled the burial, and Peters called. That's when she learned that in the 1970s, his wife had moved his remains to a mausoleum in another cemetery.
So what's wrong with this story? The newspaper account said that the cemetery now has the stone back, and "it will be reinstalled where Leigh was once buried, a way of honoring the war veteran."
Oh, I just want to cry. That is not how you honor a war veteran or anyone else. The only way a stone should go in the Keystone cemetery is if someone wants to engrave a new one that says he once lay there but now is at the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Tampa.
If future Leigh researchers find that stone, they'll rightfully assume his body is there.
Those stories were fresh on my mind two weeks ago when I visited my ancestors at the Friendship Cemetery in Whorton, a rural community in north Alabama. It had been many years since I was there. I immediately noticed that things weren't as I remembered.
Mowing convenience again trumps propriety
Stones that were engraved and placed horizontally rather than vertically had been sunk so that their tops were flush with the grass. Why? I asked one of the deacon's wives.
Mowers! Again! Now they can zip right over the graves instead of mowing around them.
The deacon's wife assured me she goes out frequently with a bottle of Roundup to make sure the grass doesn't take root over the stones. What a nice gesture on her part, but how long will that last? No amount of mowing or good intentions will stop the runners from taking root, eventually totally obscuring the old stone markers. Within a few generations, no one will find those graves.
I'm all for efficiency and making a job as easy as possible - but only if it isn't at the expense of my dead ancestors. It's tough being a descendant. But it's up to each of us to look out for those old country cemeteries and make sure our ancestors are resting instead of turning in their graves over all of these mowing shenanigans.