Tuesday, November 04, 2014

A Week of Gravestones

As many of you know, I'm a volunteer gravestone photographer, uploading pictures of mostly local cemeteries and graves to FindAGrave.com—over 2,700 photos so far. Because I have Raynaud's Syndrome and can't work with bare hands in the cold, this is seasonal work for me.

Last week I set out to fill one photo request at a relatively small cemetery, and take some random photos at the same time. I told myself this would be the last cemetery outing for the year. FindAGrave had 25 interments recorded, and only five of them had been photographed. When I arrived, I realized many more interments had gone unrecorded. I started taking pictures, all the while keeping my eye out for the requested name. I get in a zone when I do this, stopping only when my back hurts. This, unfortunately, doesn't take very long, but I still arrived home with over 100 gravestone photos.

The usual procedure goes like this:  I put a photo on my monitor and check FindAGrave to see if someone already covered this person. If not, I create a memorial on the site, listing the deceased's name, dates, and any additional information I might have, which usually isn't much. I add the photo—or two photos if I have a shot that shows the whole stone and another that makes the inscription easier to read. If it's obvious that two or more deceased are related, I link them.

This time so many of the stones were so old and worn that I started Googling what I could read of the names and dates to see if someone had included these people on family trees. Because so many people are tracing their family histories, there's a ton of information online now, and I had success in almost every instance.

I found myself learning more than I needed to know, because it was all so interesting. I made another trip to the cemetery, coming home with over 100 more pictures. I found parents of some of the deceased I'd already listed, and children. And siblings. I was inspired to make a third trip. Each trip was followed by a day or evening of photo uploading and research. It consumed my week. I added almost 300 names to FindAGrave, and more than that many pictures, and in the process I learned more about the people buried in this cemetery than I ever thought possible.

Unfortunately, and I suppose predictably, their stories were often sad.

The mother of three who made the noon dinner and then hung herself in the woodshed. Her 14-year-old daughter who found her mother and then died herself a year later. The 3-month-old twin girls who died within five days of each other. The 4-month-old I had to list as "Baby" because she hadn't been named yet. The little boy who died one day before his first birthday. So many other children, lost each time diphtheria or another illness swept through our county.

Sometimes while working on FindAGrave I'd click randomly on one of the little photos honoring someone out of my area. That's how I learned about Permelia Elathae Durfee Clark and her husband, Thomas, of Michigan.

Permelia and Thomas married on Thanksgiving Day 1863. They eventually became the parents of four children. Three of them died in infancy, and their surviving child, Grace, died giving birth to her first baby. A year after that, Permelia died, and 11 months later Thomas wrote this diary entry. It moved me deeply.

"I am writing these closing lines on Christmas Day 1894. I am alone in the house from which they were carried to their final resting place. The dog which my daughter loved lies at my feet. The clock which Aunt Lucy gave my wife ticks on the shelf. The flowers they cared for so tenderly are sitting on the windows. Much of the furniture is arranged as they left it. Their handiwork is around me wherever I turn my eyes. The passing holidays bring again in review all the years we spent together. I had passed my 29th birthday when I married Permelia, I have passed my 60th now, and although it is never safe to say with absolute certainty, if I had my life to live over again I would do this or avoid that, yet I think "yes" I feel "sure", that if I stood again by her side as I stood the morning of my wedding day, and all my life with her had been revealed as it lies now recorded in the memories of the past, I would take her hand in mine and join my life to hers just as gladly as I did then. With the light of that revelation illumining my path I would welcome the joyous experiences as they come. With a clear understanding of the responsibilities which that relationship involved I would strive to discharge them better than I have done. I would accept the pain and disappointment and sorrow as bravely as I might, but my hand should not tremble nor my response be less clear because of that revelation, than it was then ,when all our future was concealed" T.S. Clark 12-25-1894


Julia said...

Wow, it's amazing the information you've discovered while doing volunteering photography work and research.


Susan said...

This topic came up in an online group, and the disparity of reactions was interesting too. Some were as fascinated as I, or in a few cases even more so, while a few couldn't understand why we would look into the lives of those who had passed--even if they were our own ancestors. They felt it was a total waste of time.

crystal said...

Very touching, what he wrote. I wonder if anyone ever takes photos of the resting places of those who have been cremated? Most of my relatives aren't in graves.

Helen said...

I definitely fall into the "fascinated" camp. When I look at old photos I often wonder what the people's lives were like... and being able to read something personal they wrote is so special.

Susan said...

When you think about it, it's pretty remarkable that so many accomplished so much without most of our modern conveniences--and certainly without our electronics. Life may have been simpler then, but it was a lot more difficult. In addition to their hard work, on average they suffered many losses. But underneath it all we have much in common with them.

Mary Ann said...

Not only was this diary entry touching, it was so beautifully written, as if by a well-known author of long ago. So neat what you do!

Mali said...

I've always been fascinated by the stories behind the gravestones. So of course I loved this whole post, but then you slayed me with that diary entry - so very beautiful.

Cedarwaxwing said...

This was so touching. I completely understand your fascination. I always wonder about the people memorialized by their gravestones when I visit cemeteries, but I don't normally research them. However, I do indexing for FamilySearch.org and often spend time looking up the folks whose names I've indexed. I most recently indexed death certificates.

Indigo Bunting said...

What a fascinating thing to do. And his letter? Teary now.

Susan said...

Thanks, everyone. I'm glad you all got to read this. There are a couple of pictures of Permelia on her FindAGrave memorial. She looks tired at age 34. Probably wrung out from grief, although I think most people looked older then, when life expectancy wasn't what it is today. I didn't find a photo of her husband.