News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News Columns

May 30, 2011

Paying respect in more way than one way…

TERRE HAUTE — It has become a habit of mine on Mother’s Day to go to Rosedale Cemetery and lay a few irises on my mom’s grave. They were her favorite flowers, and since I have so many of them growing around my place, it takes little effort to clip a few favored purple blooms and drive the mile into town for a special delivery. My daughter, Ellen, sometimes goes with me, and again this year we stood together in a warm May breeze, staring at my parents’ long gray stone, wondering how the years since their deaths could have passed so quickly.

If you have read in this space before, you know that my family has a keen interest in cemeteries. Between the four of us, we have walked them, small and large, from New England to California, from Michigan to South Carolina, and we have visited the graves and tombs of the wealthy and famous, as well as the poor and powerless; we are simply interested in them and find nothing morbid with the habit. From Mark Twain to Ava Gardner, John Rockefeller to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, we’ve paid our respects to a lot of folks.

Years ago, more Americans were interested in graveyards, and not just on Memorial Day. On the average, death came earlier to us, and it was nearly impossible not to know a family that was untouched by someone’s tragic passing, whether it came to the strongest in the coal mines or train yards, or to the youngest in the form of diphtheria or typhoid.

By the time American cities were rapidly expanding in the 19th Century, huge tracts of land were being devoted more and more to develop graveyards, places where families and friends could commune with nature and God in settings away from the soot and grime of urban life. Terre Haute’s own Highland Lawn is a classic example of that American Romantic Landscape Movement, particularly with its rolling hills and Romanesque chapel.

Rosedale has few of those romantic qualities; it is an old cemetery, to be sure, for the town, itself, is old, but it is a nearly flat plot of sandy soil with a circular drive and yellow-red sandstone entrance markers, put in place during an expansion a half-century ago. Storms and time have taken all but a few of its big, old maples, but a huge blue ash dominates the landscape despite facing the occasional amputation. The cemetery is exceptionally well kept, neat and clean and trimmed, as well as any graveyard I think I have ever seen anywhere, and for that we are grateful.

But we have not always found the cemeteries we visit in such fine shape. My kids were still kids when I drove the family to Washington, D.C., some 15 years ago, and not long after we walked open-mouthed through the White House and had taken in Arlington National Cemetery and Ford’s Theatre — literally everything the capital had to show us in a sore-footed week — we climbed aboard the subway for the last time on our last day to make our way out to Congressional Cemetery, a “must-see” according to our guidebook. What we found was a disgrace.

Congressional is older than Arlington by nearly 60 years; it is the final resting place for such luminaries as J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa. But it was weedy and unkempt and forlorn, and more than a little frightening when we saw it that day. Against the advice of a beat cop, who stood near the station entrance, we hiked with backpacks and cameras in tow, looking every inch the yokel tourists we were. But when we walked up to Congressional’s gates, we knew right away that it was as far as we wanted to go. The horseweeds and grass were as high as our heads in some places, and we left a little sad that those buried there were not given the dignity they deserved.

Congressional was cleaned up, and today its website shows a huge expanse of some 55,000 well-tended gravesites. Its makeover is hardly the case for many cemeteries these days. We sometimes hear of vandals tipping stones and stealing from the grief-stricken, while other graveyards are just shaggy and forgotten, the victims of woefully poor budgets or a lack of concern. Thankfully, that is not how it’s worked out at Rosedale, where my parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and even my great-niece are buried. The people who take care of the place take great pride in their work, and theirs is a story about people who go well beyond their job descriptions.

Linda Smith is one of those people. Linda, the town’s deputy clerk, works at the town hall in a building that once housed the church my grandparents attended. Appropriately, she and her husband, Maurice, live on Cemetery Street, just a stone’s throw from the graveyard’s gates. She began working there when Junior Briddick, upon his retirement as the longtime caretaker, convinced her she should take his place. Junior is now buried under the sod for which he lovingly cared. Now, Linda, who bears the title “sexton,” a word that’s been around since the 13th Century, wants to work at the cemetery “as long as I can.”

“My first thought (after Briddick’s request) was, no. As a child, I was terrified of this place. Now, I find it a source of comfort and healing. The graveyard is very near and dear to my heart, as it has so much history of Rosedale, and every grave has a story and family that is attached to it,” Smith said.

She doesn’t work alone. Maurice lends a helping hand every once in a while, and their friend, Bob Groves, puts in at least three days a week there, despite maintaining a pretty heavy running routine. In fact, for a place that is often associated with total inactivity, the cemetery is looked after by a corps of devotees who just want it to look nice, and they have the calluses to show for it.

As signs of respect for the dead, and for the living who cared for them, we can solemnly stand on street corners and remove our hats as funeral processions pass by; we can send flowers and cards to the bereaved; we can make contributions to favorite charities in their memories. But some folks, like Linda and Bob, pay their respect through hard work, by putting in hours on their hands and knees, pulling weeds and sweating, by leveling grave markers and seeding grass and handling rakes and shovels.

There’s more than one way to show respect this Memorial Day, and I’m glad to have friends who realize that better than most.   

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at hickory913@aol.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com.  His third collection of stories is due to be released in the fall.

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