Thinking About Historic Graveyards

Okay…historical confession time: I like historic graveyards. To me, it’s special to wander around a cemetery, finding the graves of Civil War generals, officers, soldiers, and civilians that I’ve studied.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery

Fredericksburg National Cemetery

Some folks find that a little freaky, morbid, weird, or history-nerdy. And I’ll admit it’s strange. After all, I’m not looking for ghosts (don’t believe in them anyway), and I’m definitely not in a hurry to get myself in a grave.

So why wander around a graveyard? Here are my reasons:

It’s quiet. Obviously.

Even if that cemetery is in the city, it’s a place of quiet whispers and memorial thoughts. Listen closely – you’ll hear the birds. Breathe in the scent of moist green grass. Cemeteries are often quite beautiful in the scenic way and are a good place to collect your thoughts before rushing on to the next library or historic site.

It’s a way to remember famous and not-famous people from long ago.

I don’t know what your traditions are when you visit a cemetery. (Or maybe you just avoid them…)

But my grandmother taught me from a young age to take beautiful flowers to lay on a loved one’s grave; as we placed the flowers, she would quietly tell me a memory she cherished about that aunt or great-grandmother. I think those trips to cemetery formed my view that cemeteries are a place to remember the good in a person’s life and think about their legacy to future generations.

These are the attitudes I use when standing at an ancestor’s grave or a historical person’s burial place. What character qualities did they exhibit? Good and honorable actions?


A Revolutionary War Soldier buried alongside Civil War Soldiers, near Cross Keys Battlefield, VA

Reading gravestone inscriptions is inspiration.

Walk through a historic civilian or military cemetery. Read some gravestones. These were amazing people. Stanza after stanza or phrase after phrase praising individuals as good parents, faithful spouses, courageous soldiers, “angels of mercy,” kind friends, or beloved children.

Now – to be honest, tombstones usually state the best attributes of a person. (Surely, there were a couple days when that exemplary wife had a fitful attitude). Still, what character! What ways to be remembered!

“How do I want to be remembered?” I wonder, rising from the damp grass and walking toward the gate.

It can inspire big ideas with an anchoring reality.

If reading tombstones is inspirational, then you might leave a cemetery with resolve to strive for better character or to make the world a better place. You’ll also leave with a reminder that the end comes.

What epitaph do you want on your own memorial marker? Live those attributes now. Make those world or community improvements, starting today.

William Nelson Pendleton GraveIt reminds us to preserve history and legacy.

If we go to cemeteries to remember our ancestors or historical heroes and heroines, we are remembering their actions and legacy. It’s important to preserve these reminds of those who lived and have gone before us.

Many historical cemeteries are in need of gentle care. Gravestones topple. Marble needs careful cleaning. Some need the weeds pulled or grasses clipped away from the stones.

Don’t walk into your local historical cemetery and start a clean-up project without asking permission! Instead, find the historical society or check with the cemetery office (if there is one). Do they need help preserving or maintaining the historic memorials? This can be an excellent volunteer project and help preserve history, memory, and legacy.

A last thought: if the cemetery permits it, leave flowers.

One of the most special moments on my Virginia-Maryland trip last year was visiting Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia, and leaving fresh flower bouquets on the gravestones of a historic family. I’d been researching the family for about two and a half years, and it was a simple way to show my respect.

McGuire Family Graves, Mount Hebron Cemetery, Winchester, Virginia (Photo by author)

McGuire Family Graves, Mount Hebron Cemetery, Winchester, Virginia (Photo by author)

Were they perfect “angelic” people? No. They were real people in the Civil War era. They struggled. Argued. Served. Helped neighbors in need. Saved lives.

I simply can’t tell you all the thoughts and feelings I experiences as I placed though flowers, traced and whispered the fading chiseled granite, and rose to walk away – promising to remember their simple lives, great sacrifices, and strong character.

Try it at your ancestor’s or hero’s grave. Read the inscription. Lay the flowers. Remember them. Then…perhaps you’ll start to understand why we need to preserve cemeteries and actually like (not fear) these memorial places.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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