Sunday, June 7, 2009

Marbled beauty

“Mississippi had no art except in cemeteries. I like the tombstones showing children asleep in seashells. I love this sleeping child who is cracked from top to bottom. A broken chain and a hand removing one link – I like this kind of rope, a rope of years. And two joined hands, those are of parting, at least that’s how I interpret it. There were lots of baskets that spilled out their flowers. Look at the lambs and their kinky curls. I like this one, the willow tree that snapped off in two. I love the family beneath the willow tree. They’re grieving for their lost father and husband. Poor little things, they’re just knee high. All these little bitty things, weeping at her knee. On the gate at the Port Gibson cemetery the figures are in grief. They’re weeping for all the sadness within. People planted Easter lilies around their relatives. I suppose the choice of plantings was entirely up to the individual. A lot of hardy flowers that could withstand the freezes, and plenty of blubs in the springtime. These look like little roses.” -- Eudora Welty, Country Churchyards

Although I’d hardly say I write a miniscule amount as well as Eudora Welty, I was thrilled to find a book in our local library containing cemetery photos taken by Miss Welty herself. I admire her work greatly and it’s awesome that she and I had something in common other than writing.

My fascination with cemeteries began when I was a small child. I loved Granny Hughes, my mother’s mother, dearly and spent as much time with her as I possibly could short of moving into her house on Franklin Street.

Papaw Hughes died suddenly of a heart attack when I was barely five years old. Although I adored him, my grandmother was devastated at his death. Often when I would go to her house to visit her, she would often want to trek to Henry Cemetery to visit Papaw. I didn’t quite understand the visits, but I would attempt to make the best of the time we spent there. I would often walk around and read the grave markers in the vicinity of Papaw’s grave. Sometimes I would practice my math skills by figuring out how long the people buried nearby had lived before they died. When my neighbor died, I would sometimes sit on his stone and tell him what his widow had done since my last visit to the cemetery. I wasn’t certain if he could hear me, but I thought it was important for me to keep him informed about her.

As a child, I understood the significance of a cemetery, but I never really saw the beauty of it. It was probably my junior year of college at Mississippi University for Women when I discovered the beauty that often lies within the gates of cemeteries. I was encouraged to go to Friendship Cemetery in Columbus to obtain some magnolia leaves for a project I had undertaken. While there, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the cemetery grounds were. There were various forms of statuary and each one was quite unique. But it was one marker in particular that got my attention quickly. Sitting at the grave of a minister, the marker is a beautiful marble angel. There is no doubt when you see this angel that you can tell she is very grieved because it looks as if she is weeping.

It was the memory of that grave marker that led me to encourage my best friend, Mandi, to accompany me to the cemetery again to take photos one homecoming weekend at The W. We went for a few hours that Saturday evening and had such a wonderful time taking photos of the various markers that we decided to return the next day. We spent about six hours there.

We didn’t locate the weeping angel marker until the second day we visited Friendship Cemetery. But seeing her again was well worth the length of time it took to find her. The sky could not have been any bluer for the photographs even if we had polarizers on our lenses.

Because of this cemetery, we now spend lots of time haunting various other graveyards in North Mississippi. On a recent trip to the District of Columbia, I spent several evenings researching what cemetery in the area would be a good one to visit. We ended up choosing Congressional Cemetery and spent five hours scouring the grounds there seeking unusual markers as well as the final resting places for various famous Americans. I truly wish I had done a little more research as I found one of the people involved in the conspiracy to kidnap, and later kill, President Abraham Lincoln was buried there. It would have been a challenge to find his grave, as he has no marker, but it is supposedly near his sister’s grave.

Now Mandi and I spend spare time travelling backroads of various areas of North Mississippi in search of unusual cemeteries. Sometimes we have a destination in mind. Other times, we just pick an area and drive until we find a cemetery. One thing I have noticed. You may drive for miles down a rural county road with nothing but scrub trees and weeds along the right of way. But when we finally locate the cemetery, it’s always amazing to me how immaculate the grounds are.

Growing up, my mama always told me that there were two things belonging to people that you never “messed with” – their money and their dead. Viewing the beauty of some of the country cemeteries in this area, I truly know she was right on target with the latter part of her assessment.

Although we will continue to happen upon some of the old country cemeteries in this area, we have some actual trips planned to some larger ones in nearby areas. We want to tour a large cemetery in Memphis and another one in Huntsville, AL. We also plan a trip to Natchez this fall and have already begun planning which ones we will haunt on that trip. I guarantee a side trip to Port Gibson will be on the itinerary.

Some folks may think my cemetery photography hobby is a bit morbid. But I don’t consider it that at all. I find that there is beauty all around us – even in cemeteries – if we simply take the time to look for it.


Pam D said...

Hmm.. I'm thinking you need to post some of those photos. I'd love to see them!

Jobie said...

You still on FB? They're ALL on there!

Pam D said...

I go to FB maybe once every week or two. Got tired of all of the "junk" I had to wade through to find the real info. It's almost like getting a hundred of those forwarded emails every time you sign in. Ugh. But... for you.. I'll go and look! :<)

Jason and Valleri said...

I love Friendship cemetery, and I used to walk through it just to calm my nerves while I was at the W. (Oddly enough...) Yet, walking through I just always saw beauty knowing that these people were loved.

There is a really old cemetery on the grounds of Dorothy Garrett Girl Scout Camp north of Corinth (off of Highway 2). I was always fascinated as a child because it felt so weird that this "Girl Scout" camp had a cemetery. It was not well maintained when I was 10, so who knows if it is still there. I simply remember one of the individuals dying on my birthday 100 years before I was born--which totally freaked me out!

Valleri Templeton Merrill