At a recent family get-together the question was brought up as to why one set of my 1st great grandparents (who died between 1923 and 1942) were buried with only a rock for a gravestone. My uncle offered that maybe they were too poor to afford a professional gravestone with their name on it. I doubt that. And the rock/fieldstone can no longer be located. Thankfully I at least have a couple black and white photos of them, and a picture of their 1894 marriage license I took during research at the clerk’s office in my local courthouse.
Three years ago, the man who maintains the plat map of that cemetery told me he only has records of *marked* graves. Unless they mark plots on a map as allotted to a family, what is to prevent them from being inadvertently dug up when some mortician a decade from now sees a couple open spaces and decides to bury there?
Let us step back for a moment. If we go back far enough, common folk had no gravestones. They would be buried at the foot of an old tree or a rock placed in lieu of a headstone. Cut marble stones were expensive, generally unavailable to poor folk or people living great distances from cities. Roughly speaking, after the WBTS engraved headstones became more commonly available and affordable to plain folk, and especially so in the 20th century.
Consider John Rowan (1773-1843) of Kentucky -judge, politician, horse breeder, duelist, and builder of Federal Hill plantation. It is said that Judge Rowan specified that he should have no headstone, as his parents had none and he felt no greater than them. Eventually his children formally marked the judge’s grave, which can be viewed at My Old Kentucky Home State Park between the visitors center and his circa 1818 mansion. I accept that common folk, and even some planters, often did not have gravestones 200 years ago. That is just reality. But 80 years ago? Really?
And yet, my aforementioned 1st great grandparents Robert Young and Minnie Jane (Elledge) lay unmarked in a row near the woods at a large Methodist cemetery. One relative remembers being shown their graves maybe 40 years ago, fieldstones still visible then. Two of their four children lie nearby, with spouses, all in marked graves. The immediate area has several spaces for potential graves. Minnie Jane’s parents lay in the same graveyard, up the hill in marked graves. Robert’s parents lie in a cemetery one county east, in marked graves.
Why did the five adult children of my 1st great grandparents not mark their parent’s grave with a headstone bearing their names? I cannot answer that for sure. None of the five were wealthy, but none were poor. All the men were literate and employed. The men were all land owners. Even if money was tight in 1942, why not mark them a couple decades later?
One the back row of a little country graveyard near me is a stone for six infants of the same family, these infants being older second cousins to my mother, some stillborn and unnamed, with a few rocks visible nearby. But the ones who lived to adulthood before being laid to rest there all have actual headstones. A poor couple in the Depression era who gave birth to 18 children over a 22 year period (many sets of twins!) could apparently not afford headstones. They were poor. My ancestors were not. Plain folk, yes. Dirt poor, no. Why no headstone?
My grandfather, son of the unmarked Robert and Minnie, lies next to my grandmother in marked graves. So do all four of his siblings, sort-of. One brother and his wife have nothing but the little metal plaque on a stick that funeral homes use to mark graves before a headstone is set. One is very weathered, having stood there for over 30 years. Their only daughter did not bother to mark her parent’s grave with a headstone. And guess what. When the daughter and her husband died, their daughters did not mark their grave either, save for the funeral home plaque stick in the ground. Then when one of the two daughters prematurely died in 2021, her sister did not even bother to mark her grave for over a year. Finally, a small metal plaque on wire showed up, not a funeral home style one. She is employed, owned a house, inherited her sister’s house, but just could not drop $300 for a basic mail order flat headstone for her sister’s grave. Can we guess how her grave will one day be marked? A generation who do not care about the memory of their ancestors will be requited with descendants who likewise do not care about their memory. I came across an article last year titled Family tree stumped: Most Americans can’t name all 4 of their grandparents! by one Chris Melore. It cited survey data that only 47% of people could name all four of the grandparents, and another survey indicating that only 4% (yes, four percent) of people could name all eight of the great-grandparents! How can this be? It is not hard to destroy a race and their culture when that people have lost sight of who they are. The Southern question when meeting a stranger of “where do you bury” does not work well if one does not even know who their grandparents are.
I have read, from an online source, that “Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire”. I think this to be true. At some point my family, and that of most Americans, ceased to preserve the fire. People started living for themselves, in the moment, structuring their lives around the acquisition of mammon. Extended family drifted apart. Sunday visits ended. Family moved away, even hundreds of miles away to different states. First cousins barely know each other, and 2nd cousins never met. And thus goes out the fire.
Do not let the fire go out in your family. If it already has, do what you can to rekindle it. But do not be surprised if most of your cousins do not care. If you have any ancestors with unmarked graves that can be located, mark them even if you must take up donations from interested kin. Our people must endure!
Joe Putnam is a life long resident of Kentuckiana, with ancestors having lived with a 75 mile radius of Louisville since 1780. He has blogged at God, Kin, and Soil and has indie published a few small books available on Amazon.