Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorializing Memorial Day

My mother, sister, nephew, brother, and sister-in-law were all here in Morgantown for the last few days.  Being Memorial Day weekend--and a hot, sunny one at that--it included traditional elements like bike riding, bratwurst, ice cream, and outdoor beer drinking.

But perhaps the most traditional thing we did was to visit a family cemetery yesterday morning.

All of us Hathaway kids have very un-fond memories of Memorial Day cemetery trips, riding in our Uncle Cleo's un-airconditioned car along twisty mountain roads in central West Virginia, en route to the family cemetery in Grantsville.

In the bad old days, Uncle Cleo would also smoke a cigar as he drove; later, he just chewed them.  But he was still reluctant to turn on the AC, even after he had it, or to open the car windows.  A lifelong hill-dweller, he also didn't believe in carsickness, which meant that any complaints were duly ignored until the critical moment.  My sister Pam and I both associate Memorial Day with throwing up on the side of the road...and then getting back in the car to continue the journey.  I think all of us were incredibly relieved when we got old enough to skip the annual trip, and I don't think any of us had been on a cemetery visit in well over twenty years.

This year's visit was completely unplanned, and was not to the family plot in Calhoun County, but to one here in Monongalia County.  After Mom got to town last Friday, she told me that she'd discovered, while doing some genealogical research, that some ancestors of hers were buried in a small cemetery in the Morgantown area.  We looked it up online and discovered that it was just over on the other side of the river,  in what's now Westover.

Our first attempt to find it was less than successful.  Note:  do not trust GPS to get you to someplace like this.  The road the GPS directed us to led to an auto salvage yard that was blocked by a beat-up old junker.

We attempted to find another way back to the cemetery, and ended up on a dead-end road where several inquiries yielded nothing but blank looks.  The guy at the end of the road said his neighbor up the hill might know, and yelled up to him, but got no response.  He told us to drive on up the hill and ask J. R. if he knew where the cemetery was.

So, ignoring the "No Trespassing-Private Property" sign, we drove up the steep gravel driveway, Mom saying, "This is so West Virginia!  I love it!"  (She grew up in the southern part of the state, by the way, and so means that in the best way:  what she loves is the fact that folk knowledge trumps official knowledge every time in these situations.)

At the top of the hill, we all had some second thoughts when we saw the Confederate flag flying from J. R.'s porch.

As you can see, Pam and I threw our mother to the dogs (literally, as it turns out, as J. R. had a huge, enthusiastic dog named Bo who kept jumping on mom).   We stayed in the car, while she went out to do the talking.

This wasn't as mercenary as it sounds:  mom decided a number of years ago that one of the few perks of aging was the fact that she could do pretty much whatever she wanted, because "little old ladies" are essentially invisible in our culture.  Plus, she has good Southern manners and the ability to chat up anyone--qualities I sadly did not inherit.

J. R. actually turned out to be a friendly guy, but he had no idea where the cemetery was, either.  He said it was too bad we hadn't gotten there a year earlier, because his dad, who lived to be 99, would have known.

So, we drove on.  Bo escorted us down the driveway...and down the road...and then ran after the car once we were able to speed up and pass him.  The last we saw of him and J. R. was when we turned around to see J. R. chasing Bo down on his four-wheeler, trying to herd him off the road.

Astonishingly, all of this happened less than five miles from my house.  A reminder that this seemingly urbane college town is situated right smack in the middle of a very rural area.

Back at home, we looked the cemetery up on Google maps and got a very different set of directions--and ones that looked like they'd actually work.  So, on Monday morning, we set out again, and this time were able to find it.

As you can see, the Burnt Meeting House cemetery has been in existence for 250 years.  With a little hunting, we were able to find the grave of John Lough, my great-times-three-or-four grandfather.

His stone is very elaborate, and features the following sobering inscription:
Behold me now, though soon forgot
I have past the vale which you have not.
Remember friend, you are born to die
And turn to dust as well as I.
There were several other very old headstones in the same part of the cemetery:  this one, for John's wife, Anna, is interesting because the carver made no attempt to line out the inscription, but simply started a new line in the middle of words when he ran out of room.

This one is simply a rough piece of rock, carved by hand:

Contrast those with these more modern monuments in the cemetery.  This one has a statue of the Buddha propped up in front of it (I'd really like to know the story here):

And this one exemplifies the contemporary trend for monuments to celebrate the individuality of the people they commemorate.  It's worth clicking on the photo for a larger view, so you can see the detail.  I especially like the fact that the couple is pictured sitting in a swing on the left-hand side, and are also pictured in a photograph with their wedding date in the center of the stone.

Frankly, I can't think of anything that shows how radically different our sense of self is now than it was when this cemetery was first established.  John Lough used his headstone to remind us of the vanity of individuality by emphasizing the fact that we'll all be dust one day.  The Maxwells' monument seems to be an attempt to freeze that individuality for eternity. 

All I know is, Memorial Day felt ritually complete to me today after we left the cemetery.  It took me thirty years, but I think I finally understand why these visits matter.

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