Over the years our family has developed a Memorial Day tradition that involves a short road trip, cross generational sharing, and an analog twist on digital media. The tweets are obscure epitaphs chiseled in stone and the blog entries are graveside conversations. We’re not organized like several online genealogical services. We’re more like a family Wikihistory—a bit fuzzy, receptive to rewrites, but easy to access.
We have relatives buried in four country cemeteries within a twenty mile radius of the home farm, so those free on Memorial Day hop in a few vehicles to make the pilgrimage. My brother Tom keeps the old headstones cleaned, and Dad has his own built-in GPS memory of where the sites are located. In some cases, the inscriptions are faint and the headstones might sit in lonely graveyards miles from the nearest small town. At age 87, Dad is the wikihistorian, and he generally starts spinning the family yarns each year.
It’s only fitting to start with a military veteran on Memorial Day, so we usually visit the Hubbard Cemetery first. The family patriarch, Bernard, has a Civil War veteran’s marker near his headstone, and by this stage most of us know the basics. He was one of the first to set up a farm on the flatlands of central Iowa before a raging prairie fire sent him and his small family back to Pennsylvania where he joined the Union army. We’re not sure how much time he spent fighting, drinking, or using his skills at cabinet making, but a few years later he, his wife, and a growing number of kids were back on the farm. This is when we usually add varied bits about his son Dave who survived a rattlesnake bite, his son Berry who became the good time drinker of the county, and his wife Lydia who held together a growing family on a hard-scrabble farm.
Ten miles away, a few distant relatives in the Bevins Grove Cemetery have stones so worn we can’t read most of the information, but that doesn’t stop us from making conjectures and trying to piece together some details. We discuss the usual profound questions of heritage, but sometimes we wander off a bit: “You mean Great Aunt Tess? Wasn’t she the one with the blond mustache?” I ask.
“That was Aunt Mildred,” says my sister. “She was very neat and proper, but she believed you shouldn’t mess with what God gives you.”
Mom joins in. “My Grandma Regan had the best facial hair. We kids thought it looked like a goatee.”
The family’s inner circle members are buried in the Zearing Cemetery, a pretty spot that includes a mausoleum–a cold stone building that has been refurbished and has lost the Edgar Allan Poe aura it had when we were young. As eight-year-olds, we believed the rumor that a kid had been locked in there overnight by bullies and he came out stark raving mad.
Grandpa and Grandma need no introductions for us, but Dad usually repeats anecdotes about clan members like his Aunt Ida. She was born in 1900, and her headstone makes it clear she died at age nine. Burst appendix. Apparently the kids in her fourth-grade class placed a vase and flower on her desk for the remainder of the semester. Someone added a “you’ll be missed” note. In country cemeteries it doesn’t take long to find headstones with sad messages of 140 characters or less indicating a child resides there. The faded hashtags might be the names of a disease—cholera, diphtheria, whooping cough.
On the odd occasion we make it further afield to the Cambridge burial spot, we catch up with the Ryans—Granny Faye’s bunch. Apparently several of them participated in the Civil War. Faye’s grandpa, Dan Ryan, watched his uncle and older brother enlist, so at the age of fourteen, he lied his way into the army. He probably grew up fast; records show that he was along with the scorched earth tour General Sherman led as he marched to the sea. Could have been worse—Dan’s uncle spent time in the notorious Andersonville Prison. At the ripe old age of nineteen, Dan settled down in Iowa where he and his wife, Clementine, had eight children. They must have been a fast-working pair, because Clementine passed away at age thirty-one. Dan was left with his own army to organize.
At least I think that’s right. We pass on these stories repeatedly, sometimes depending on who’s present and how many bottles of Guinness get opened. Most of our family history is written down somewhere, but there’s something spiritual—and entertaining—about stories that float along orally at gravesides. The process works best when family members of all ages are present. The elders tell what they know, the younger ones ask questions, and the ghosts of generations past hover but never interrupt. Hashtag: honoring our ancestors.
by dan gogerty