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.

10 Responses to Thinking About Historic Graveyards

  1. What I find most moving about wandering around military cemeteries are the number of ‘unknowns’. One can only try to imagine the grief and pain for the thousands of families that watched their sons, brothers, fathers, cousins and uncles march off to war and never return .. many times not knowing their final resting place.

  2. What bothers me most about grave stones is when the family gets it wrong. Our ancestor from the 3rd Indiana Cavalry has the incorrect Company on his marker. A buddy of mine from Vietnam who was KIA in ’68 has the incorrect helicopter squadron on his marker. Proper respect for their memory is important also.

  3. In our discussions about whether McClellan was slow, or Lee was hurt by the discovery of Special Order 191, or was Longstreet slow at Gettysburg, or did Joshua Chamberlain win the battle single handed, or was Grant the greatest general of the Civil War or merely a butcher, we tend to forget the 750,000 young men who never had the chance to grow old.

    A few years ago we were in Massachusetts on business and while Judy was attending conferences, I wandered around the museums and small towns around Boston.

    I found these two memorials, one a crude headstone in a small cemetery with neighbors dating from the 1670s; the other a marble monument by one of the greatest sculptors of the last century, resting near Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and the Alcotts.

    There are thousands of similar memorials in cemeteries across the eastern half of the country with similar wording, changed for the side the men happened to serve.

    Never forget them.

    In memory of three brothers born in Concord
    Who as private soldiers gave their lives
    In the War to save the Country
    This memorial is placed here by their surviving brother
    Himself a private soldier in the same war
    “I, with uncovered head
    salute the sacred dead
    who went and who returned not”

    Asa Heald Melvin
    Born September 26, 1834
    Killed in battle before Petersburg, Virginia
    June 16, 1864

    John Heald Melvin
    Born July 27, 1841
    Died in a military hospital
    At Fort Albany Virginia
    October 13, 1863

    Samuel Melvin
    Born April 9, 1844
    Taken prisoner at Harris Farm Virginia
    May 19, 1864
    Died at Andersonville, Georgia
    September 1864

    Members of Company K, First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery

    – Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts. The marble memorial was designed by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), sculptor of the Minuteman Statue at Concord’s North Bridge and the seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC


    Co. G. 2nd Regt. Mass. Vet. Vol.
    Wounded at Resaca, Ga.
    Died at Chattanooga, Tenn.
    July 25, 1864, aged 20 yrs. 1 mo.

    Co. E. 16th Regt. Mass. Vet. Vol.
    Died at home
    May 25, 1865, age 24 yrs. 8 mo.

    ONLY Children of Jotham and Rebohah, W. ABORN

    – 1st Parish Cemetery, Wakefield, Massachusetts

  4. Sarah – Thank you for chronicling your cemetery visits and for mentioning Winchester’s Mount Hebron Cemetery. Stonewall Cemetery in the middle of Mt. Hebron has over 3,000 Confederate dead and across the street is the National Cemetery with thousands more Union dead from the Valley fighting. Both poignant spots. Confederate Memorial Day has been celebrated here every June 6 since 1866.

  5. Sarah – great piece. I also love walking through old cemeteries. My favorite is the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in Lexington, VA. Though relatively small, it’s absolutely beautiful.

  6. I like to go to battlefield cemeteries and leave US flags on the graves of soldiers from my home state, or on unknowns.

  7. A thoughtful take on places that, as you pointed out, can be powerful sources of remembrance, reflection, and inspiration. They also can impart information and insight. Last year I learned as much in a 90 minute tour of Lowell Cemetery in my hometown of Lowell, Mass., as what I’d known up until that time. The guided tour was sponsored by the cemetery and the city’s historical society. The leader shared fascinating narratives about the people buried there– city, church and labor leaders, war veterans (more than a few of whom served in the Union Army), philanthropists, captains of industry, social and civil rights activists, nefarious scam artists and common folk. A real mix of life experience and generations, like the varied voices speaking from the grave in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” If you ever get a chance to hook up with a cemetery tour, go for it. Or go on your own visit and, if you can, seek out and bring along a local history buff. Even on your own, just reading the inscriptions, you’ll learn a lot.

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