Above my family homestead in the East Tennessee foothills is an old, abandoned cemetery. I admit I’ve never seen it, but I think about it often. I imagine the worn stone markers neck deep in leaves in the fall or peeking out of the winter snow like early hyacinths. In my imagination, I never bothered to name these people, much less engage in meaningful character development. I don’t know them in any sense of the word; I just know that they are up there, tucked deeply in an earthy hollow waiting for whatever comes next.
I don’t expect anyone comes to visit the site since it is easily a mile or three off the beaten path, presumably safe from the high pitched hum of society in action. Perhaps a hunter once spent a moment there, propping his foot on a strangely smooth stone to reload his rifle, not even noticing he was in a cemetery before moving in for the kill. It seems these graves, these people have been relegated to the forest’s domain, where the squirrels and raccoon are their untrained, unpaid, and unpredictable cemetery landscaping staff. In the parlance of our times, this old cemetery has been abandoned and left for dead. Some profit-minded land developer could plop a house on that cemetery and no one would be the wiser, present company excluded. And what would it matter? What is the purpose in protecting a lonesome century-old cemetery in the Appalachian wilderness?
On a childhood field trip to Cades Cove decades ago, I recall a historian talking about dead cemeteries. “If a cemetery’s dead,” he explained, “it means there’s no more room for new burials in the cemetery, so the community will go start a new cemetery.” The idea of not having new neighbors sounds nice, sure, until two or three generations die off and suddenly no one from the community comes to visit your graveside. On multiple levels, that bothers me deeply; come two, three generations from today, will anyone care if there are flowers and a stone on Dr. Maples’ grave? Will they even care if my grave exists? I wish I had that answer. Really, I’m a bit afraid that I do have that answer in my concussed mushy grey matter of a brain. What saddens me is that my ancestors back a few generations died thinking quite the opposite, giving them at least a bit of solace before being pushed off into the great unknown. It leaves me today wanting what they had. I think my Appalachian birthright should be peace in the afterlife, something that I can gladly pass down through generations.
Back in the day, Appalachians buried their dead in a community space called the commons, a place where community norms dictated that cemeteries would be tended by the community as a whole. The community used their cemeteries as a place to remember, to celebrate and mourn the cycle of life, and to memorialize and commune with their ancestors. The community even had family reunions and dinners on the ground at the cemetery, with plenty of time scheduled to clean the individual graves of their winter debris amid showing off great-grand babies to loved ones. Forget The Lion King: that is the circle of life. I’d approach the termination of my existence with a bit more candor if I knew it meant I’d still get invited to dinner on the grounds and get to see my great-grand children learn to whittle.
As an aging sociologist with a scientific interest in cemeteries, I think often about why old cemeteries like this one near my family homestead or like my old family cemeteries up in the mountains really even matter in our society today. What purpose does an old cemetery serve when the living have never met the dead in that cemetery? Perhaps optimistically, I see cemeteries as part and parcel with the living community. Bear with me. What I mean here is that the cemetery really is still a portion of the living community. Indeed, it’s even a reflection of what’s happening (or has happened) nearby. For example: looking for social class in the living community? Go check the local cemetery, and look for that expensive monument at the very top of Cemetery Hill. Note the last name; it’s probably an ancestor of today’s local politicians and power elite. Looking for culture? Head to the peaceful cemeteries the Great Smoky Mountains, and keep a weather eye for beautiful, lovingly-carved grave markers hand-picked by Appalachians from the nearby farmers’ fields. As you drive through the Cove, be sure to wave at my ancestors’ ghosts or they’ll loosen the spark plug wires on your engine. They’re ornery, troublesome, bearded folk, just like me.
In old cemeteries, scientists can find demographic trends and social changes. We see the small graves of babies dying before their time (including my uncle Ray), succumbing to illnesses that today require only a trip to Wal-Mart. We can find the history of the local community’s war against famines and pestilence, such as the downright spooky (but no longer contagious) Yellow Fever Cemetery in Martin, Tennessee. We can find a history of oppression and stratification in segregated graveyards. And any Civil War cemetery will testify to socio-historical forces that shape our individual lives, making corpses of the young far too often and far too soon.
Famed (and now dead) sociologist Lewis Mumford went so far as to say that cemeteries are just cities of the dead, the counterparts to all us living folk walking around like chickens with our heads cut off just waiting around for the next event in a series of uninteresting events. I often wonder if Mumford’s said this cities of the dead hypothesis aloud to himself over and over late at nigh, and if it brought him any peace as his final days dwindled night. I wonder more if it will give me any peace when my time comes? Ever since the Enlightenment hit its high water mark and rolled back behind a TVA dam, science has left many of its disciples (myself and poor Mumford included) short on meaningful faith and given us very little to fill that void in our nightmares.
Still, I admit there’s that less-civilized, hillbilly proud, and eternally exhaustively stubborn side of my brain that makes my mamma proud right here and now by quoting Genesis 3:19: ” In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Part of me (particularly the scientist part) is not satisfied that cemeteries matter at all. I’ve been told too many times that the bodies of my loved ones are empty vessels. If so, why bury them in a hermetically-sealed five thousand dollar casket? Why all the fuss over Memorial Day, burial mores, or buying that perfect shady spot under the old elm in the local cemetery? Let’s all go Viking pyres on this issue and burn baby, burn. For those twinging with environmental guilt, there’s always the eco- burial where we just leave the dearly departed on a rock face, making an impromptu smörgåsbord for feeding local birds, wolves, and goats before the ants and worms get theirs. If I am truly dead, my soul will be doing exactly whatever it is that souls do after shuffling loose the mortal coil. I really won’t care. Wolves, I won’t hold it against you for eating me, but feel free to eat the goats. I sense they will annoy me until the end of time.
Still, that feels incomplete. Surely our bodies mean something in the scheme of it all? My interest in old cemeteries has uncovered a few horror stories that shake my bones…stories that make me really Auguste Comte-be-damned hopeful that a vengeful, pissed-off God stands at the other end of death waiting with talons and claws for the plain ol’ bad people our society tends to breed. I think of cemeteries in my research on the once quiet hills of West Virginia, cemeteries quietly blown to smithereens and back by explosives in mountaintop removal areas. I think of Appalachian writer Bruce Hopkins and how bulldozers scraped his family off the sides of a mountain in Kentucky. Gas pipes cut through cemeteries, cemeteries left at the bottom of Tennessee Valley Authority lakes, roads to apartments to parking lots built right on top of the departed; the list goes on and on. But would it matter if a cemetery, if any of these cemeteries, were gone? I mean, let’s be frank: two hundred years is a big amount of dead time piling up. A quick slip of the shovel would reveal little more than tarnished brass buttons, wood fragments, and mushy, uneven settling in the dirt. For all my arguments with God and the Enlightenment, Genesis pretty much nailed that aspect of my life: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I’m on this roller coaster until I’m not simply because I am a living creature of habit in the habit of living. I, like all living beings, like all parrots in Monty Python sketches, must die, die, die.
So here is my grand hypothesis: partly applied sociology, and partly, well, to make myself sleep at night. I wager that old cemeteries do matter, because, in some small way, they are part of the human desire to live forever. Thinking of my own end, I feel some peace in owning that depressing, rectangular plot of land. So long as I am there, I am somewhere. So long as one might find me on a map, or a website, or even by chance, I still exist. At least that’s what I hope. To any of my students who might be reading this: feel free to decorate my grave in perpetuum diemque unum. Stop by for fatherly advice, lecture notes, or to pour out a few shots of Dalwhinnie for that ornery Doc Maples. There will certainly be extra credit offered.
Returning back home in my mind, thinking about what is left of my culture’s commons, I hope that old cemetery above my childhood stomping grounds still exists. I truly hope it’s there, untouched and unconcerned with the passage of time, soon basking in the cool beauty of a multi-colored Appalachian fall. But if it isn’t, those six or seven or even eight strangers still roam around my mind from time to time. I sincerely hope it gives them peace in knowing that someone knows they are still around somewhere out there.