Franklinville M.E. Church Cemetery, ca. 1900; taken by George Russell?; author’s collection.
On this Memorial Day weekend I am speaking to the good people attending the Homecoming Services at the Mount Tabor United Methodist Memorial Chapel in Jackson Creek, and in a few days I’ll post pictures of that interesting little church and cemetery.
Appropriately, Memorial Day was originally (in 1868) begun as a way to honor the Yankee war dead, as family members “decorated” their graves with flowers. I’m offering here my favorite historic photograph of a cemetery, to illustrate the MASSIVE changes that have taken place over the past hundred years in our attitudes about honoring the dead. (The name wasn’t changed to Memorial Day until 1882, and for historical completeness I will note that Confederate Memorial Day in North Carolina occurred each May 10th, the anniversary of the death of Stonewall Jackson).
This photo shows the Franklinville Methodist Church Cemetery, part of the original 1830s village. It now crowns the hill top across from my home, the Coffin-Makepeace House, built originally by Elisha Coffin and for generations the home of George Makepeace family (for a thumbnail sketch see http://macwhat.googlepages.com/franklinvilleresidences – someday I’ll have a much longer post).
The “Factory House” in Franklinville was in full operation by March, 1840 [ Southern Citizen, 21 January 1840]; also in operation by that time was the Franklinville Methodist Church. On August 14, 1839, Elisha Coffin deeded a 1.64 acre tract to Phillip Horney, Alexander S. Horney, Elisha Coffin, Bethuel Coffin, and J.M.A. Drake, “Trustees for the Methodist Episcopal Church…who shall erect thereon a house or place of worship.” [Deed Book 24, page 190, Randolph County Registry]. The Quarterly Conference of the Randolph Circuit was held in the Franklinville Church on March 2, 1840, the church having been rapidly completed over the winter. The congregation was five years old before a cemetery became necessary. The oldest known burial is that of William Arnold (1786-1844), just east of the brick cemetery. That grave, however, was not included in “half an acre laid out for a burying ground” deeded from Elisha Coffin the Phillip Horney, Alexander S. Horney, Benjamin F. Coffin, John M. Coffin, John Miller, John Hendricks, Joshua Pool, Trustees of the Franklinsville Methodist Church, on November 2, 1844. The next oldest known burial is that of “Marcara” McCuiston Coffin (1778-1845), wife of Elisha Coffin. Mrs. Coffin’s grave was specifically included in one-quarter of an acre deeded by Elisha Coffin to members of his family on July 5, 1848, and now known as the “Brick Cemetery”.
The Brick Cemetery, enclosing the grave of Marcara McCuiston Coffin, the Horneys, and the Makepeace family.
The Brick cemetery (a 4-foot-tall brick wall about 15 by 30 feet) isn’t visible in the historic photograph, but it is an example of the first rule of pre-20th century cemeteries: they were all enclosed with walls or fences, to keep out the horses, cattle and swine which ranged free across the landscape up to the time of the enclosure votes of the 1890s. The “Stock Law” votes reversed the ancient custom of stock ranging free on the ‘common lands,’ and thereafter livestock were required to be kept inside their owner’s fence. The wooden pale fence that still enclosed the entire Franklinville cemetery in 1900 is visible in the upper right background, and was the only part of the cemetery that was maintained by the church; by the 1920s it had been removed.
Maintenance of a cemetery has always been the responsibility of the “owner,” but the conception of who owns a cemetery has changed during the 20th century. At the time of the photograph, Franklinville residents would have said that the family of the deceased owned the plot that their loved one was buried in. Therefore, it was the family’s responsibility to keep the plot properly maintained. This picture shows us what proper maintenance looked like in the 19th century: 1. Each burial plot is individually marked with both headstone and footstone; 2. Each burial plot is properly mounded with dirt, to hide the inevitable sinking of a plot as the coffin and its contents decomposed; 3. The marble markers are kept clean and polished; 4. No weeds or grass are allowed to desecrate the surface of a grave.
At least once a year, but especially around Decoration Day, families would assemble in the cemetery to whitewash the fences, straighten the stones, repair or replace wooden markers (since only the wealthy could afford store-bought marble and granite), haul in extra dirt to top off the mound, and hoe out the invasive grass and weeds. That grew into a tradition of returning to the old family church for Homecomings and Dinners on the Ground, a tradition of country churches all over the South now coupled to Mothers Day or Fathers Day instead of Memorial Day (now more the starting gun for summer vacation than for remembering our war dead).
Franklinville Methodist Cemetery, May 24, 2009. Taken by the author from the same position as the historic photo above. The camera position is just off the southwest corner of the brick cemetery, looking west from the driveway separating the brick cemetery from the Victorian section of the grave yard.
As Americans became more mobile in the 20th century, families no longer lived in the community and attended their traditional family church. Gradually the church itself began to assume responsibility for maintaining the cemetery, and maintenance by committee revolutionized the look of country cemeteries. The first and the biggest change was in the grass- or actually, in the end of the complete and total lack of grass. Modern cemeteries are maintained, a great expense in time and energy, in the same fashion as 20th-century lawns came to be maintained- as open monocultural fields of non-native perennial grass. This resulted in shaving away of the mounds of dirt above each plot, and the loss of all footstones, so that lawnmowers didn’t have to negotiate these hazards. (Such things aren’t allowed on a golf course, so obviously they shouldn’t be allowed in a cemetery- right?) And as push mowers became riding mowers, and as riding mowers became bigger and bigger, even headstones were considered hazards. (This is why modern “memorial parks” require headstones flush with the ground, so mowers can ride right over them), and examples of these can be found right beside the brick cemetery).
More and more, headstones in cemeteries are considered obstacles to traffic, and only certain approved types of markers are allowed. The cast iron, painted wood and pottery markers that many Randolph County cemeteries once sported are long gone (some of the pottery markers have been preserved in museums, ironically).
Another change began in the 1980s, as shrinking small engine technology produced light-weight string trimmers (a/k/a “weed eaters”). This has also been deadly to tombstones, especially the oldest slate and soapstone markers, stones which were chosen because they were soft enough to be easily carved in the days before mass-market marble and granite. In any contest between soft stone and weed eater, the centripetal force of the nylon string will win. Early string trimmers ran between 3000 and 5000 RPM; 21st century trimmer commonly turn 10,000 or more RPM.
The result is ancient monuments being worn away where the base meets the ground surface, until they look like sharpened pencils. Then the weakened stones become even more vulnerable to riding lawnmowers driven like bumper cars.
There are of course people who argue against treating historic cemeteries like golf courses; the National Park Service recently hosted a national conference about cemetery preservation (http://www.ncptt.nps.gov/index.php/cemetery-landscape-preservation-workshop/ ). But even well-meaning people can go off track: I think of a large church cemetery north of Franklinville which raised money to sandblast its collection of headstones. It cleaned the mildew and moss off the marble, making them pearly white in the sun. But sand-blasting eroded the carving so that many markers are now almost impossible to read. Discolored marble can best be cleaned with a mild abrasive hand cleaner, a plastic bristle brush, a bucket of water, and some effort. Lichen and mildew can be killed by brushing a Chlorox solution on the stone.
I know of no historic cemetery which has been ‘restored’ in the way buildings have been, but it’s not impossible. We would just have to recover an appreciation for what our ancestors considered respect to the dead and responsibility to our ancestors. Instead we homogenize our cemeteries to remove all of their historic character.
NOTE: Here is a blog showing the ongoing restoration of the old First Presbyterian cemetery in Greensboro, now the back yard of the Greensboro Historical Museum. It is a fascinating read, and just the kind of thing I wished to see above. The restoration company, Stone Setters Gravestone Repair [ http://www.stonesetters.biz/index.html ] are doing fantastic work. I wish I had the money to set them loose on our Franklinville Methodist cemetery! (August ’09)