Grave Conversations

The Stories Told by Tombstones

This article is by Amanda Jenkins:

Wandering through a sea of engraved names and dates, I have entered the dwelling place of the dead. How strange it is that I’m only encountering these people because they are dead. Death affords us a familiarity that life withholds.

In life, I pass countless people throughout the day. Smile at some. Perhaps even strike up a conversation of pleasantries before going on with my errands. I seldom learn their names, let alone their birthdays. Certainly never their death days. They stand before me, living, breathing, and yet I’ll know less about them than if I were to meet their gravestones.

I ponder this as I come upon a family plot laid out in one corner of the cemetery. Here I meet a Mr. and Mrs. Thomas. Their inscribed birthdays tell me that he was nine years her senior, though the following dates reveal that she outlived him by nearly two decades. There is a small badge beside Mr. Thomas’ headstone. A Civil War veteran. The date somberly informs me he died before peace was struck. He did not live to see if his sacrifice was in vain or not. I place my hand on his grave and whisper “Thank you for your service.”

And what of Mrs. Thomas? Did she spend her husband’s dying breath by his side? Given the date matches up with a southern battle, probably not. She must have been informed of her widowhood via a letter. Maybe a telegram. The trepidation she had to have felt when she was handed it, the small paper weighing a ton. As soon as she read the words, her life would have been forever altered. Imagine the heartbreaking news rendered in stark ink: Your husband has fallen in battle. STOP.

Not far from her is a series of more graves. The Thomas children. Joshua was only eleven years old when his father died. How quickly his childhood would have been cut short. Did he go to work at the nearby mill yard to earn bread for his family? Beside him rests Abigail, his wife. Her maiden name sounds off recognition bells in my head. Where have I heard that name?

Of course! The prominent family that owned a portion of the mill yard. She was an industrialist’s daughter. Was she visiting her father at work one day when she caught the eye of a lowly millworker? The scandal such a courtship must have caused! Perhaps that is why she is buried here, in the humble Thomas family plot, rather than being entombed in the grandiose mausoleum her father had commissioned. She would have sacrificed her status and privilege to wed a man beneath her social class. Was it worth it?, I wonder. The dates on the bottom of their epitaphs are a meager two years apart.

The second Thomas child, Mary, rests in solitude. No spouse shares her grave. Was she content going through life untethered, or did misfortune take away her companion? Mary’s headstone is less forthcoming than those of her relatives. Very well, I can respect her privacy. I take a moment to study the dash between the two dates. Such a small symbol to encapsulate a lifetime of stories. Like a sly wink, it teases secrets Mary took to her grave.

I turn to leave when my gaze snags on a gravestone I had missed. It is smaller than the others, leaning slightly towards Mr. Thomas’. This belongs to Clara, the birthdate revealing her to be the youngest child. Grief knits itself in my stomach before I can fully register the second date on her epitaph. She was seven years old. She followed her father into the grave only a year after his death. Was it tuberculosis? That sickness is responsible for a good portion of the graves in this cemetery. My mind’s eye conjures a portrait of a small child seized by coughing fits. Her crimson stained lips a ghastly contrast to her gray pallor. Had she been suffering long before the illness claimed her?

I look at Mrs. Thomas. I can scarcely fathom the strength this woman had. To bury both her husband and daughter, yet still carry on living. She would have stood upon their graves – as I do now – and remembered the stories they shared. Stories she would carry with her until she, too, committed these memories to the grave. Lifetimes worth of stories rendered into a dash between two dates.

The engraved crosses above each of their names tell me that the woes of the Thomas family did not follow them into eternity. Their lifetimes were laced with both sorrows and celebrations all culminating in the eternal glory they met in death. I can almost hear Mr. Thomas reading aloud Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” God’s glory was true then, just as it is now.

So much time has passed since the Thomas family drew breath, and yet so little has changed. Our God remains the same. I know He mourned with Mrs. Thomas when she was grief-stricken, just as He comforts me when I am overcome by sorrows. He carries my burdens, as He carried hers.

Tonight, I will remember Mr. Thomas and say a prayer for our troops and their families. Remembering Mrs. Thomas, I will hold my loved ones a little closer. As I reach the cemetery gate, I turn for one last look at the Thomas family. Beside the headstones, I see a crinoline-draped woman on the arm of a Union soldier. They raise their hands to me in kindly salutation. I wave back to them, grateful for the opportunity to remember them.

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