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Legacy


Respect for the Departed Reminds Us of the Future

By Karl Priest Charleston Gazette May 27, 1988, p. 7A

It started several years ago, long before I knew about the begats of the Bible. I was visiting some young cousins who took me to a neighborhood site. In a grassy field, bordered on three sides by luxurious suburban homes, was a clump of trees and brush. We went into this miniature forest—a rough circle of about 50 feet in diameter—and found the reason for this fortress of resistance to the onslaught of construction.

There, worn and tilted after decades of diligence, stood about 10 tombstones. To the youngsters it was an eerie place, but the area gave me a feeling of melancholy. I read the inscriptions and surmised this to be the final resting place of a 19 th century farmer, his wife, and some other kin. Evidently, the graves had been forgotten for there was no sign of maintenance. I wondered what would happen as the demand for home sites encroached upon that peaceful domain. Even though I didn’t know the people, it seemed that their last physical trace was on the verge of being obliterated.

That memory was rekindled sometime later as I hiked along a rural ridge. Beside an infrequently traveled path, toppled from its base, lay a hand-carved marker. The only legible word was “Sarah”. There was no sign of other stones and no houses were nearby. I imagined some forlorn wayfarer burying his wife or daughter and then moving on in search of a better life.

I don’t have a morbid fascination with death. Rather, it’s like a feeling of veneration for those who have walked this way ahead of me. This sentiment was quickened. Recently when, while searching for my roots, I found the place of burial for my great-grandfather’s brother.

The grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, he came by covered wagon across the western Virginia mountains to settle and take a wife. He lived to see his younger brothers join both the Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, before he died in 1877. His grandson fought in World War I. I parked my gas-guzzling automobile where the buggies parked over 100 years ago when this pioneer was buried. At his grave , I stood on the same soil where my ancestors stood and I longed to know about them.

My search led me through volumes of historical records. All of the old census, land, estate, and death records were written in longhand. The script is difficult to distinguish and some of it is quite dim. Still, the registers have shed light on those people who preceded me in this world. They probably never dreamed of the modern conveniences their descendant would enjoy as he studies his forbears. I was intrigued as I uncovered clues to their heartaches and hardships, their foibles and virtues, and their victories and failures. They became more than just a list of names.

I think we owe our ancestors our part of eternal courtesty. When my great-grandfather lived he likely gave no thought of a great-grandson who would yearn to find out about him. It’s hard for me to realize that, someday, I too will be only a name unless someone is gripped with the same sense of reverence that I have.

I’m not talking about only decorating graves on Memorial Day. Doing that is good, but the visits and flowers don’t help the departed. I’m referring to a disposition toward respect for the remembrances of men and women who have lived prior to us. If this attitude motivates the cemetery sojourns, it will help the living. It will remind that there was someone before us, and before our parents, and before our grandparents. Even more important, it will prompt us to think of those who will follow us.

Our genealogical lineage doesn’t always lead us to framers of the Constitution, but we are left with a heritage that warrants we honor the memory of those we descend from. Lincoln spoke some words, over a battlefield, that are appropriate for us as we live our lives. He said, “It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated to the great task before us…(that we) resolve that these dead shall not die in vain.”

We can do this by not forgetting those that have passed and those who will become our posterity.

LEGACY INDEX