Exploring almost-forgotten country graveyards, reading inscriptions on tombstones and wondering about the lives of the people whose remains lie under them is not everyone’s idea of how best to spend a summer afternoon.
Take Friendship Cemetery. In my mind, there are few graveyards more beautiful. With its old magnolias, live oaks and bordered by a river and an exquisite cypress swamp (Lake Catherine), Friendship is a soothing place to walk and reflect on the memories of friends, family and acquaintances buried there.
A month or so ago, I happened upon the Pickensville (Ala.) Upper Cemetery near the town of the same name. That day I saw something I’ve been wondering about since.
The cemetery is divided into two parts. The historic western section contains graves mostly from the 19th and early 20th century and is surrounded by a rusting cast-iron fence. The tombstones — many of them broken — are beautiful, ornate and bear elaborate, often florid inscriptions.
The eastern, more contemporary section, is said to contain graves of African Americans, whereas those of the older section, which also contains some recent markers, are mostly white.
Sometimes the language on those old stones can be perplexing. One finely carved marble stone in the older section bears the following inscription:
Sacred to the memory of Elizabeth H. consort to Tho. J. Moore Born Aug. 20, 1816, Died July 21, 1864, aged 47 ys., 11 ms. 1 day.
Consort? What could that mean? Mistress? Common-law wife? A relationship between a slave holder and a slave? The stone is broken; it’s face propped against another, but it is a beautiful marker, a testament to the stone mason’s craft.
Nearby is the overturned gravestone of the man to whom Elizabeth was a consort:
Maj. Thos. J. Moore
Born in Madison, Co., Ala., Oct. 29, 1810
Died in Noxubee, Co., Miss., April 5, 1879
Farewell my wife and children all
From you a father Christ doth call
Morn not for me it is in vain
To call me to your sight again
This inscription suggests the Major had a wife at the time of his death. The verse may have come from a book of such provided by the seller of the monument. Then, who was Elizabeth, his consort, who preceded him by 15 years?
At the farmers’ market Saturday morning I asked local historian Rufus Ward.
“Consort,” said Rufus, shaking his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such.”
Finally I did what I should have to begin with, I looked the word up — “an associate, a ship accompanying another and a spouse, especially that of a sovereign.”
So there, in the ornate language of the mid-19th century, instead of wife, we have consort. The word, according to Merriam-Webster simply means the person to whom another is married.
Had I continued looking during that initial visit, I would have found the grave of another consort, Flora Ann E. (Seems that consorts have no need for a last names.). Flora Ann was paired with James L. Shotwell and was the eldest daughter of Benj. E. and Elizabeth Cameron. She died at 20.
Nearby is the grave of Robert J. Cox, who passed in 1858 at the age of 23. Engraved on the stone: “Erected by his disconsolate Wife who deplored his loss.”
Perhaps the most soothing inscription was on the marker of Carolene Smith Huffman who died in 1998. “Resting with those she loved,” it says. Or that of Pecolia Tate Davis, who died Nov. 4, 2006: “I love you Grandmomma.”
And then there is the grave of Bill Grice who passed on to his reward in 1925. His eroded marble marker bears the cryptic inscription, “He was a husband to his wife and a father to his children.” What are we to make of that? An endearing tribute or meaningless phrase?
Reminds me of a response the late Blume C. Triplett (buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Macon) used when someone called to check on a character reference. “When you know him as long as I have,” Blume would reply, “you’ll think as much of him as I do.”
How much better for posterity if our grave markers imparted something of who we were. But then how do you impart the essence of a life in a sentence or phrase? What would yours be?
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.