October 24, 2011
by Caleb Pirtle III
The Scene: The Rural South
The Setting: Graveyards from Long Ago
It was in a cemetery beneath the shade of giant oaks and behind a wonderful old church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, where I first discovered that some of America’s greatest prose and poetry have been chiseled on the faded face of a weathered tombstone. A woman had written:
“View this tomb as you pass by,
For as you are, so once was I.
And as I am, so you must be.
Prepare yourself to follow me.”
That was beginning. As the years kept passing, I found myself, from time to time, spending more time in rural graveyards, collecting the final words that some poor soul had left behind to provide at least some faint glimpse of a life whose history, so often, had been simply reduced to a name and two dates: birth and death.
A Williamsburg, Virginia, gentleman obviously wanted to be remembered by the obvious good times that had come his way even for a few years:
“Aged 71 years but lived but 7 years
Which was the space of time he kept
A bachelor’s house at Arlington
On the Eastern Shore of Virginia.”
One elderly lady in Southern Alabama, no doubt the worn-down, worn-out product of hard circumstances and hard times, wrote these last, fateful words about a new world where days of hard work around the house would be unknown and forgotten.
“Dear friends, I am going
Where washing ain’t wanted.
Nor sweeping nor sewing;
And everything there is exact to my wishes.
For where folks don’t eat,
There’s no washing dishes.
In Heaven, loud anthems forever are ringing.
But having no voice
I’ll keep clear of singing.
Don’t mourn me now, don’t mourn we never.
I’m going to do nothing forever and ever.”
Some may have been the victims of gossip and rumors in life, but death offered a chance at long last to escape a worthless or tainted past and begin anew. As one North Carolina woman inscribed:
“Reader, pass on, nor waste your time
On bad biography and bitter rhyme.
For what I am, this cumbrous clay insures,
And what I was is no affair of yours.”
On the other hand, one man’s marker said with pride:
“He done his derndest.”
And, perhaps, nothing better can be said of any of us.
The cattle trails of the late 1860s were marked with the dusty graves of cowboys whose lives had been short ones. Hard. Unforgiving. And short. On the headstone of one, alongside the Goodnight Loving Trail that cut through West Texas and into New Mexico, a man’s final episode of life was cut into stone:
“Here lies the body of Jeems Hambrick
Who was accidentally shot
On the banks of the Pacus River
By a young man.
He was accidentally shot with one of the large
Colt’s revolvers with no stopper for
The cock to rest on.
It was one of the old fashioned kind
Brass mounted and of such is the kingdom
Final words had never been so final.