Each Wednesday, a different member of The Association of Graveyard Rabbits is invited to write an introductory article about themselves, their blog, and their work. Today we are honored to have Bob Franks, historian, researcher, photographer, and "Rabbit" of Itawamba County, Mississippi, in the spotlight. Bob has recently started a Membership Directory for The Association of Graveyard Rabbits which is very helpful and well used. His contribution to the formation and implementation of The Association of Graveyard Rabbits is most appreciated.
by Bob Franks
With my Association of Graveyard Rabbits blog, Graveyard Adventures in Itawamba County, Mississippi, I plan to document many of the historical cemeteries of my county. In this documentation I plan to highlight many of the unusual monuments found in these cemeteries, as well as provide background information about many of those remote rural cemeteries hidden by years of neglect as well as provide biographical information relating to those memorialized by many of those gravestones. I will also tell tales associated with these cemeteries and try to provide cemetery research techniques as well as publish photography of gravestones from an artistic point of view.
To me, the graveyard is not only a simple record of birth and death, but so much more. It is an outdoor museum documenting the lives and times of the generations who came before us. The American clergyman Joseph Anderson (1836-1916) once wrote:
"It is not a mere field in which the dead are stowed away unknown; it is a touching and beautiful history, written in family burial plots, in mounded graves, in sculptured and inscribed monuments. It tells the story of the past, not of its institutions, or its wars, or its ideas, but of its individuals lives, ---of its men and women and children, and of its household. It is silent, but eloquent; it is common, but it is unique. We find no such history elsewhere; there are no records in all the wide world in which we can discover so much that is suggestive, so much that is pathetic and impressive."
I tend to agree with Rev. Anderson.
For the past thirty-five years with my personal research and work with the local historical society, I have probably visited most every cemetery in my county at one time or the other. And each time I visit many of these old burial grounds, I usually discover fresh information and notice things I've never seen before. These old graveyards simply document the lives of those who came before us.
An old burial ground is located near my home, back in the dense woods. In this little graveyard dating back to 1842, there is an inscribed monument and adjacent to this old monument are five graves marked only with field stone. It was later I learned from an elderly descendent of the family the graves marked only with the field stones were the graves of five children in this one family who all died during a yellow fever epidemic after the Civil War.
In the old Salem graveyard in the northeastern section of my county are two adjacent graves displaying the same surname for two young men. From researching local newspapers I learned it was during 1908 these young men died of gunshot wounds during a gunfight with the Federal marshal on the same day in a field west of the cemetery.
There's an old grave in a field east of the Tombigbee River on the old Warren farm. The old grave marked with brick curbing is in the shape of a well. It has been said that during the Civil War, a man was buried here, placed in a sitting position in his favorite rocking chair. And an old local diary supports this story. On September 19, 1863, Henry Jackson Lentz wrote in his personal diary: "Old John Warren died. Aged 89 years --- he was buried a-seten up."
Researching hallowed ground is an exciting exercise. From those old gravestones stories like the ones above are told. These stories are as diverse as America itself.
Graveyards not only document those who came before us, but serve as an excellent museum. It is interesting to note the decorative and religious motifs on gravestones from different periods in history. From the hand of God pointing upward (the reward of the righteous confirmation of life after death) to the weeping willow (the symbolic tree of human sadness), the ancient inscribed stones are simply works of art.
To me, researching an old graveyard is an exercise in adventure and a welcome relief from studying old documents, census records, and books. Getting out in the field, exploring old hallowed ground brings history to life. In these old burial grounds I simply feel as if I am around those who came before me --- those hardy pioneers and settlers who forged a great nation from the wilderness. Living through hard times and good times, war and peace, and poverty and prosperity, their lives are memorialized in those old silent and eloquent burials grounds of our nation.