The Forgotten

Sometimes I picture some frontiersman living a life on the road, never settling down, just trying to live day by day.  He has a mother and father who live in some small town and when he passes away his body is sent home and he is buried in the family plot.  He never made history, never had any papers, and all that’s left of him is a name and pair of dates on a tombstone somewhere.  Sometimes that is all there is.

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When I walk through a cemetery I say the names I see inside my head and run some mental math so I can get an idea of how old the person was, and I try to picture the time they lived in.  Were they the lone traveler? Did they accomplish anything?  Sometimes I hear their voices saying, “Hey, I was here.”

In my years of visiting cemeteries I have seen things in many states.  When I first visited the Dudly cemetery in Mitchell county there was not a single stone visible, as all were buried with the passage of time.   I started researching cemeteries in the area and found, sadly, that this happens far too frequently.

Some places were completely forgotten.  The stones had fallen to ruin, never to be read again.  We mark the places where our loved ones were laid to rest, but sometimes these places are lost.

These stones once stood in a field, at some point a farmer moved them into the woods so he would have more acreage to plow on.  From Mitchell County, Iowa.  We may never know where the real graves are.

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Also in Iowa, an abandoned cemetery near Buffalo Center.

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Near St Ansgar there is a haunting little place where some restoration was attempted.

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Just a year old…

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Sometimes the thing that haunts me are stones that have faded.  No longer do they have family to take care of them, and these people are completely forgotten.

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The earth tries to take back the stones that were pulled from it.

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Sometimes it’s the elements that take the toll.

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I think saddest of all are those that never had a name…

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Grandpa the Mason

My grandfather passed away when I was very young and his is one of the first funerals I can recall going to.  I remember going to the funeral home and wasn’t sure what to expect, except that there would be a lot of emotion there.  My grandmother was calmly talking and being practical, at 94 I am sure she has seen her share of funerals.  Grandpa’s casket was very ornate and there was a good reason for that.  Well, a couple good reasons.

Years before, my grandfather had buried a friend and I happen to be at his house when he returned from the funeral, which took place in a very rural area in Michigan.  I never saw my grandpa crying before, but the source of his tears were not coming from where you’d expect.  According to my grandfather his friend was buried in a plain pine box, just four sides and a top and bottom looking very much like something you’d ship a lamp in.  My grandfather couldn’t speak, I remember my grandmother cradling him and the only words he said at the time were, “don’t bury me like that.”  He could barely get them out.

This is one of the things I think about when I walk among the stones.  Who had big funerals, and who had no one.

Grandpa’s was big.  Not as big as my dad’s (more on that in a future article) but he was well-known and well-loved.  His life was long and interesting and in later years was fire chief and then mayor of his sleepy little town.  I am sure more people would have come if he simply hadn’t outlived them all.

One thing really surprised me.  He was adorned with jewelry.  I mean, he looked like king.  There was a ring on each finger, necklaces were placed around his neck, big ones.  There were ribbons and medallions, for one thing I had always know about my grandfather but never really thought about was that he was a Mason.  A high-ranking one.

We drove to the cemetery and his body was placed in a temple and we were all asked to leave.  I lingered behind and looked through the stain glass windows at what I could only presume was a Mason ceremony.  Men wearing jewelry opened the casket and they moved around and said things I couldn’t hear.  His casket was closed and they filed out.

Not being a Mason I never found out what their burial traditions are although I’m sure in this day and age it can be Googled but I want to maintain that sense of wonder I felt watching what seemed to be a mystic ceremony.  Now days, while walking in the cities of the dead I can see many Masonic symbols and these men and women I at least know were taken care of when they passed away.

My grandfather, who in spite of his wealth of friends and family died a humble man, and we gave him a humble marker.  Symbols of the Mason and the Order of the Eastern Star can be seen between the years of their lives.  (You can click for a larger version.)

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The letter G in the Masonic emblem is a reminder that we are all created by the Great Architect of the Universe.

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Wives of Masons usually belong to the Order of the Eastern Star.  No, FATAL isn’t how they died, it stands for Fairest Among Thousands, Altogether Lovely.

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I found this statue near Des Moines in a cemetery that was full of Masons.  It depicts Masons holding the weight of the world.

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You can see the men holding traditional tools and symbols of the Masons.

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The inscription reads, “Every one of these short lives leave its sure record of some kindly thing done for others.”

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Pillars and unfinished temples also symbolize that a Mason was buried there.  A broken temple is a Mason whose life was cut short.

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High level Masons can become a member of the Knights Templar and/or Shriners, their scimitar, crescent, and star is easy to spot.  The center is the symbol for the Knights Templar which includes the latin phrase “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” which translates to “In This Sign, Conquer.”  Occasionally you will only see the crown and cross for a Knights Templar.

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A two headed eagle is the symbol for a 32nd degree Mason of the Scottish rite.

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Remember, these are but a sample, but one thing I’ve learned, just about everything on a stone is a symbol for something.

Prologue

bwstone04Every city seems to have permanent fixtures that we are so used to we hardly notice them anymore.  The water tower, the city hall, a playground or two, and somewhere off to one side there is a field set aside as a place for us to bury our dead.  Cemeteries exist in our peripheral vision, we never really see them until look directly into them.  For most, they are just a place full of stone markers, dates, names, and a bible verse or two.  Then, on some quiet summer afternoon you may find yourself walking through one and you may look closer at what’s around you and see that there is so much more to these quiet places.

If you look close enough there are countless stories to be told.  Stones contain symbols and representations that mean something to the corpse underneath and the families they left behind.  Names tell the stories of who built the towns around you and who worked the land for generations past.  The pairs of dates reveal a life that was long or cut short or never had a chance.  And taken as a whole you can see the whole community, families, neighbors, friends, and lovers who all lived and died and interacted and built and prepared everything you see around you for without them there would be no community.pic00447

Sometimes when I’m alone, walking through the stones, I can almost hear voices saying hello or asking who is president or what year it is.  It’s a lonely place, a place where we carve our name in stone, and how long we were here, so that people may remember we lived at all.  It’s also a place that once we are there we are left alone, to suffer the very fate our stone was meant to prevent – to be forgotten.

When I started visiting these places I began to wonder what the stones really meant.  What is the broken chain?  The lamb?  The drape?  The log?  Were they just random designs or was there something deeper.  I began to photograph and study and in time began to see that cemeteries are like books.  They can be read, deciphered, and even learned from.  This blog will contain some of what I’ve learned and where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.  In the end I only hope that for a short time I’ve moved these places from just something you drive past to something that really has meaning.  These places of the dead can really seem to come alive, like a city.  A city of stones.cos03