Thursday, October 29, 2009

Grave-Mounding, Outhouses and other Remembrances

Last Saturday, I took the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite undertakings--taking a long day trip down to central Texas. The Lampasas River Valley is only 3 hours from East Texas, but one definitely passes over into another culture. I have lived my life in what is culturally part of the Deep South—albeit the westernmost bulwark of same. Somewhere between home and the Hill Country, one leaves behind all that sing-songy Southern sweetness and enters into the easternmost regions of the plainspoken West.

I made the trip to help in a cemetery work day, where people gather to clean up a rural graveyard. I have written of this particular spot of ground before, and probably will do so again. This cemetery has always been something of a touchstone with me. As cemeteries go, this one is not particularly old. After many relocations, my grandmother’s grandparents finally settled down here in 1880. Two years later, they suffered the loss of a small son. They buried Uncle Willie under a live oak tree about 250 feet north of the house. 15 years later, my grandmother’s dad was buried in the grove, as well. In time, the cemetery saw the burial of a large number of extended family members, including my grandparents and two uncles. But early in the history of the graveyard, neighboring families started using it, as well. Today, the cemetery contains over 300 graves.

There’s not that much to do at these cemetery workings, as it can often be more of an excuse for socializing. Mainly, I trimmed around the stones and raked the leaves and acorns from underneath that old live oak. It is not really necessary, but we do it anyway. I pay particular attention to 10 graves--my grandparents, grandmother’s dad, the baby of grandmother’s sister (from the marriage we are not supposed to talk about), my favorite uncle, another uncle and his wife, Uncle Willie, Aunt Fannie and the great-great grandparents. About 9 or 10 of us worked that morning, and we made a good showing. We broke up for lunch and met at the old schoolhouse where my dad graduated high school in 1932. (He did not live in that community, but as the school near their home only went to the 10th grade, he lived here in the old house next to the cemetery, with his grandmother, so he could graduate from the 11th grade.)

After eating, we attended to the business of the cemetery. These things are always much the same, but I am not complaining. We are in good shape financially. Much of the conversation centered around a controversy brewing in the region. The Lampasas River Valley is still relatively pristine, though imperiled. The sprawl from Fort Hood and the resultant Ugliest-City-In-Texas (Killeen) lies just over the hills to the north. The middle-class suburbs of Austin march relentlessly north, catching the region in a squeeze. In the old days, the area was known as the “black corner of Burnet County,” a recognition of its remoteness and of the fact that it was not particularly on the way to anywhere. Now, Oncor is projecting an enormous transmission line that will slice across the valley. The residents are organized ( and fighting it, but I am not optimistic about their ultimate success.

I enjoyed the discussion over our main item of new business—the replacing our current, and derelict, outhouse. We decided to ask for donated lumber and construct a new one—nothing elaborate, just a one-holer. I wondered out loud why there was ever a need for a two-holer, because it was not as if it was going to be used by more than one person at a time. My kinswoman sitting next to me informed me that one was for the adults and a smaller one was for the children, which makes perfect sense. I whispered to her (in jest) that one option would be to do as our great-great aunt did (according to my dad)—she just had a cane-bottomed chair with a hole cut in the seat that she moved around behind the cedar break.

Upon returning home, I was telling the tale to my wife. She asked me why there was even a need for an outhouse at a cemetery. I had to stop and think about that for a minute, for I had always just accepted it down there. In this part of the state, I have never seen such. In the Hill Country of central Texas, however, outhouses in country cemeteries are not unheard of. In East Texas, as elsewhere, the associations usually hire out the mowing and trimming. Not so, apparently, down in the Hill Country. In my experience, those cemeteries are often cared for by the family members themselves. These people actually spend time in the cemetery, and hence the need for outhouses.

Working my way home, I first stopped at a couple of nearby cemeteries where other family members were buried. The most beautiful is also one of the most secluded, and thus the target for vandals, a situation I attribute to the close proximity of Fort Hood. I was dismayed to see that my great-granddad’s stone was damaged even more than from before.

I then stopped in a nearby town to visit a couple of kins-people. One cousin’s life has been particularly tragic—including the early loss of a daughter and the decades-long disappointment of a son’s life misspent. Now at age 78, my cousin found herself in a nursing home. She was glad to see me, jovial and upbeat, refusing to engage in self-pity. I soon discovered at least one source of her good attitude—the son, now aged 50, had finally stumbled into doing the right thing. He was married again, to an obviously younger woman. My cousin, nearing the end of her earthly existence, was comforted-for the first time-by two grandsons, aged 2 and 1. I left there thinking of the unfathomable mercies of our Lord.

For about 12 years in my early married life, my wife and I made regular visits to see my favorite uncle in Georgetown. Everyone should have an uncle like mine. Our routine rarely varied. He and I would arise very early on Saturday mornings, drink a pot of coffee, eat homemade pecan waffles and talk at my grandparent’s old kitchen table, and then leave out before our wives emerged from their bedrooms. We would usually visit another uncle and his wife in Lampasas. This was a courtesy call. About the length of one cup of coffee was as long as either of us could hang around either of them. We would visit other kin, at this farm or ranch or the other, or search out old family landmarks. Around noon, we would look for a barbecue joint, and after lunch we might even stop in at the Rattlesnake Inn for a beer. But always, without fail, we included a stop at this cemetery. We would have loaded a wheelbarrow and shovel into the truck before leaving. And then, my uncle instructed me in what he learned as a youth. From a pile of sand in the corner of the cemetery, we would haul loads to the graves and carefully mound them up. That is an old but vanishing custom, rarely done, even in that region.

I have heard of this practice before, however, and I believe it a response to an ancient, if not primordial, impulse. Terry Jordan, in Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, notes : A more likely origin of the southern mounding custom is Britain. The antecedent is probably the “long barrow” grave, a pagan type dating back some three thousand years in the British Isles and succeeded by the grass-covered, elongated mounds so typical of rural English churchyards still today. I remember seeing a number of these barrows or tumuli over there—the most famous, I suppose, being Queen Boadicea’s tumulus in Hampstead Heath. Regardless of its pagan antecedents, the mounding represents a form of remembering--of respecting and perpetuating the memory of those whose bodies lie buried beneath.

As an Orthodox Christian, I find that I have a more heightened awareness of most everything I do. I can continue the discipline of keep these graves mounded, which now also includes my uncle’s, as before. But I now able, and privileged to pray for the souls of the departed.

With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life unending.

And, I can sing out “Memory Eternal.” Fr. Stephen Freeman recently wrote on this subject, from which an excerpt following:

I know as well, that our feeble prayers here are joined to the mighty chorus that ascends to God from those who have gone before us and remember and pray for us. That “great cloud of witnesses” sustains the living though we too easily forget this. How is it that the living pass their days with no thought of those who stand witness before God?

Memory Eternal for us all, until the battle is done and everything has found its rest.

It is this kind of rhythm, found in the liturgical life of Orthodoxy, that has been lost from so much of Christianity, where the grief is certainly as great. I know that I could not bear the weight of all I remember were I not able to stand with others and pray God’s eternal remembrance. There are times as an Orthodox Christian that I am not just grateful for the grace God has given, but wonder how I ever tried to live without it.

This trip found the graves to be in good shape. The next time I visit--to do a bit of remembering--I plan to bring my wheelbarrow and shovel.


elizabeth said...

It does the heart good to hear that there are those who are continuing these traditions.

My Church has a cemetery and it is an important part of the ministry...

Kirk said...

Beautiful piece, John. I need to take you up to Jennings Mountain so that you can teach me this "mounding up" technique.

It is very disappointing, I think, that so many people are turning to cremation as the alternative to burial. Many of the old people who attend my Church of Christ congregation have told me that they plan to be cremated. It apparently does not occur to them that the body might ought to be treated as a special vessel. Surely this is a form of iconoclasm.

Milton T. Burton said...

Really beautifully written. One of your best posts yet.

Becky said...

What a beautiful post. One of the things that pains me the most sometimes about living so far away from my Kentucky roots is that I can't visit the family plots. No one else in my family gets it; the only other "cemetery person" in the bunch was a beloved aunt, now deceased. I visit the Find A Grave website quite a bit. Some wonderful folks have taken pictures of family graves in other states that I've never visited and don't know if I'll ever get to, so I'm grateful. And as you said, being Orthodox now it's such a comfort sometimes to be able to pray for all those folks. Mary

Terry (John) said...

Kirk, I would love to meet you on Jennings Mountain some day. We will need a wheelbarrow, a shovel, a rake and a pile of dirt.

I agree with your thoughts on cremation and its relationship to iconoclasm. I have always opposed the practice, long before becoming Orthodox. To me, it always divorced the person from any sense of place. I'm sorry, but I have always found someone's ashes on a vase on the mantle (and they are not really ashes, but crushed bones), or my great-aunt dropping her grandson's ashes from a plane over Texas A&M, or President Obama's scattering his grandmother's remains on an Oahu beach to be, well, just bizarre. It is all so very utilitarian, and ultimately disrespectful of the body created by God--this disposal of the "cremains."

Terry (John) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terry (John) said...


As you can well imagine, I am a frequent visitor to the Find-A-Grave site, as well. And I feel your pain from being so far away from where loved ones are buried. I am within minutes of the graves of 5-6 generations of most of my maternal kin. And I am only 3-4 hours away from those on my paternal side. So, I am indeed fortunate. But as you note, regardless of the distance, we both have the privilege of praying for the souls of the deceased, here and everywhere.

Ochlophobist said...


Thank you for this. Truly beautiful.

Becky said...

Meant to say, also see the link between cremation and iconoclasm. My parents are both having their bodies donated to Vanderbilt Medical Center when they die, and anything left is to be cremated and placed in the columbarium at my mom's church. My mom is as baffled by my loving to visit cemeteries as I am by cremation and visiting a niche in a wall, so I guess we're even. ; )