Sunday, May 24, 2009

Thoughts About the Cemetery

It's Memorial Day Weekend, which for many means an annual trip to the cemetery to honor lost relatives and friends. But I'd never done that before today.

My mother invited my grandmother to church this morning and then offered to take her to the gravesite of her (my grandmother's) parents because she hadn't been in quite some time. So, my two older kids and I tagged along after Mass.

I'm a history major and a genealogy buff so cemetery visits are really right up my alley, as morbid as that sounds. And an old cemetery? All the better.

My great-grandparents are buried in a Kansas City cemetery, a portion of which dates to the Civil War (most of it was "populated" after the 1920's though). We visited them as well as the graves of my great-great aunt and her son - all gone since the '40s and '50s.

The kids and I walked a good bit inside the cemetery grounds, talking about graves and names and soldiers and cemeteries. And a little bit about death and Heaven. We walked through a small section that was clearly Greek but the remainder was largely a mix of Irish and Italian Catholics - with a few other nationalities thrown in for good measure.

I explained to the kids what a soldier's or sailor's gravestone looked like - so they looked for them as we walked. They read names on headstones. Found graves of people who shared their first names and those of their brothers.

At one point, G exclaimed to his sister: "M! Look! I found Moses!" Although I'm fairly sure that "William Moses" who died in the 1950s isn't the Moses he was thinking of, G certainly thought he had a brush with biblical fame at a cemetery in Kansas City.

A few minutes later, in the Catholic cemetery, G said, "MOM! Look! Here's the grave of the Jews!" Mortified, I shushed him and walked to see what he had discovered. Instead of finding an out-of-place Star of David, I found a large monument marked "JOOS". Possibly the most confusing surname of a Catholic family I've ever seen...

In addition to the near-constant entertainment provided by my children, I drove away from the cemetery with a contentment. Not from visiting the graves of people I knew, for they had all passed decades before my birth. But from knowing that my history is here.

I'm not descended from any big-name founders of Kansas City, no society figures, no streets bearing my family name. But I can drive around this city and know that my recent ancestors lived in these neighborhoods for over 100 years. I can see names from my family tree on headstones in some of the city's oldest cemeteries. I can search for addresses that no longer exist or are now in rundown, bad neighborhoods and wonder what it was like when my family members lived there long, long ago.

For a history geek, that's really powerful.

The internet has made genealogical research so much more convenient than ever before - but there is something very real and even intense about standing at the final resting place of the people whose names and photos fill my computer's hard drive with the rest of my genealogical findings and explaining to my children that these people were in our family before we were in our family.

It was a good day.

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