Every so often, I think there needs to be a reminder of why we preserve history. I hate to reuse stories, but in this case, there’s no better example.
This is Daisy. Daisy was born in March of 1882, and died on Feb. 16, 1883. On her death certificate, her cause of death is “lung disease,” a catch-all for many diseases at the time. However, since she was an infant and died during the winter, it was likely pneumonia. Her story is all too common… Daisy is among 88 other infants and children buried at Brown Cemetery. Many died of pneumonia, scarlet fever, typhoid fever, cholera, or malnutrition.
Her parents remain unknown, because even though it lists a “W.R. and E. Rhodes” on her death certificate, there are no other death records for anyone with those initials. Personally, I think it is more likely that her parents are Thomas Virgil and Catherine (Smith) Rhodes, who are known to have lived and died in Hartford. Their burial remains unknown, but many of Catherine’s siblings are on Brown’s Hill.
During our cleanup at Brown Cemetery, Daisy’s stone was found in two pieces, half buried next to the turn-around at the point of the hill. With all the heavy machinery using that space, we were extremely worried that her tiny stone would get damaged or destroyed. We became personally devoted to making sure that didn’t happen, and to this day, check on her grave first whenever we visit the cemetery.
It may seem odd to most of you, but it is easy to become attached to projects like these. At first, the burials are strangers, and their monuments are just that, monuments. But during the process of documenting the cemetery, you begin learning their stories. It’s much more than just their birth and death dates. It’s how they lived and died, who they loved, and what they did for a living. It’s who took care of them as children, and who took care of them during their last days here. You can even find their preferred doctor! This all adds up to create a real person who lived long before you and I were born, and usually, someone who was forgotten long ago.
So why preserve graveyards? (Other than the fact that it’s illegal to build anything there anyway.) These headstones are the last physical remnant of these people. Without them, their entire life is just a piece of paper, and occasionally, a photo or two. How are their great-great-grandchildren supposed to find them? Some people like to research their family or decorate their family’s graves each year. Or, you can look at it from a point of practicality. WV law states that if human remains are encountered during construction, everything must stop until the site is evaluated. If it’s a full graveyard, chances are that construction will never resume. It’s better, and cheaper, for everybody if these graveyards are marked and preserved from the beginning.
After a while, you even start to get frustrated when others consider your labor pointless. “Why do you even bother cleaning it up? Their bodies will be gone and the stones will crumble. Nobody cares.” If you don’t care about the preservation of cemeteries, that’s only because your family’s graves have yet to be reclaimed by the forest, and one day, it will happen. But for anyone who still wonders why I do this, I have only one thing to say. Ask Daisy.
The same logic, mixed with some basic economics, applies to historic buildings. I’ll be writing about that next week.
Information from Mason County’s death records.
Editor’s note: The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society is at 6:30 p.m., June 20, Mason City Library, Mason.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society. More information on the organization found on Facebook at Mason County Historic Preservation.