When I was a child, our family would visit cemeteries each Easter and Memorial Day. We would visit my mother’s family one holiday and my father’s on the other.
After my father died 45 year ago, my cemetery visits stopped. I married 40 years ago, and in all these years, we only visited a cemetery when my mother and aunt Vi died in 2003 and in 2007 when my mother in law died. So it was that my son, Nick was not raised with the habit of visiting the dead. (We didn’t baptize him or take him to church either).
Does anyone still visit cemeteries? I never see anyone in the cemeteries I pass by. We (as a people) still honor the dead, but the sincere honors are informal affairs, so candles, flowers and pictures placed near where the deceased lived, or where he or she died. We still bury the dead, and still erect grave stones, but as far as visiting, I don’t think we do much of it anymore.
Death was much closer to everyday life in the 19th century. Many babies died at or shortly after birth, so did many mothers - the births and deaths occurred at home. Old folks (which included men and women in their 50s) died at home too.
If you were not poor, you erected a gravestone. In small towns burial was in a churchyard. In larger towns churchyards gave way to formal cemeteries - often landscaped like parks - and typically at the edge of town. After death, families made regular visits to the cemetery to mourn their dead. They would bring a picnic lunch and pass the time with the loved one. It seems macabre now, but that is how it was. And if you think about travel before the automobile, a trek to the edge of town (where most cemeteries were) would take an hour or so. A picnic lunch made sense.
I have gotten interested in cemeteries as a volunteer for Find-a-Grave.
Find-a-grave asks for volunteers to take pictures of a grave stone so that a memorial can be established. The requests come generally from family members, sometimes from friends. Sometimes they come from anonymous folks who “collect” memorials on Find-a-Grave’s website. I have managed to find a few graves, or to confirm that someone’s grave was unmarked (as occurs with paupers and babies).
Today I went to the historic cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in Rockaway NJ looking for the grave of Jimmy Doerr, high school friend of the requestor.
I have been to this cemetery many times - it is in my neighborhood. Depending on where I take a bike ride, I may pass it on the way home. I also know the sexton, the man who maintains the graves. No one works harder than Robert Nichols, sexton at the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway NJ.
The cemetery itself started as a churchyard but over time transformed itself into a landscaped l garden cemetery It is a beautiful space.
Before I became familiar with cemeteries I held the idea that 19th century folks didn’t mourn their kids - since death was much more common. But it is clear that they did. Perhaps not the ones who died as babies. But the family of little Nelson clearly mourned him.
And so did Robbie’s parents.
Though some lived to their 70s and even later, Jane died in her 19th year. Mary Jones died in her first year, and Margaret was a 26 year old wife when she died.
In cemeteries is towns like Rockaway, you can see common surnames. In this one, there are many Stickles and Dickersons. The Dickerson's are in the oldest part of the cemetery, the part that was originally just the churchyard,
The church works hard to keep the graves clean and to preserve stones that have sunk or fallen. But most of old families that created the church and parish have long ago moved away. The families that erected large markers and mausoleums would no doubt agree with the phrase, "Sic transit gloria mundi."