Groups preserving tales told by graves

May. 17, 2014 @ 09:05 PM

History can be found in many places: in old homes and in churches, for example. It can be found in people’s living memories.

But history can also be found among those no longer living.

“A cemetery is like a history book,” Judy Stainback said. “The markers show people’s dates, military service, even sometimes their hobbies.”

But that information can be lost when markings on gravestones become eroded by time and weather — or when a cemetery is neglected and becomes overgrown.

Stainback, Jan Reese, Jean Ayscue, Mark Pace and other members of the Vance County Genealogical Society are compiling data from the county’s cemeteries to make sure the history they contain is preserved.

Their plan is to compile the data into a series of booklets representing different areas of Vance County.

“We’re working in groups; each one is working on their family cemeteries and submitting the results to us to put into booklets.” Stainback said. “We’ve already completed six booklets.”

Copies of the booklets are being donated to the Local History Room in Perry Memorial Library.

Cemeteries such as Elmwood, Sunset Gardens and Blacknall in Henderson may contain many graves. But churches and individual families established many smaller cemeteries. Some are maintained to this day, while others are in danger of being lost as historical records.

Reese provided a list of more than a dozen cemeteries the group is documenting. Some have fewer than a dozen graves; others, several hundred. Whatever the number, they present the alpha and omega of numerous lives.

“With the passage of time and increasing development, a lot of these cemeteries are in danger of disappearing or being forgotten,” Pace said. “What we’re doing is writing down what is there so there is a historical record.”

One current effort is focused on the New Bethel Baptist Church cemetery in Epsom. The cemetery lies across the road from the church, creating the oddity that the church is in Vance County, and the cemetery is in Franklin County.

An earlier effort identified 318 graves in the cemetery, but Stainback said it contains more than 500 graves. Stainback, Reese, Ayscue and Pace are canvassing the cemetery grave by grave to identify those unrecorded graves.

It’s not simply a process of transcribing information contained on the gravestones. In some instances, the grave is marked with a stone so worn it is illegible. In some places, a grave is indicated simply by a depression in the ground.

The grave markers vary from plain slabs to elaborate carvings. Someone, presumably a family member, has placed figurines including a snowman, an angel and a cherubim on one gravestone.

Flowers — some real, some artificial — mark many of the graves.

The saddest markers are those that list the birth date and death date as the same, indicating that the child died during childbirth. In one family plot, markers show that three children died at younger than 3 years old, emphasizing the uncertainty of childhood before immunizations were developed for diseases such as whooping cough, diphtheria and polio.

Earlier efforts — including by the Works Progress Administration — have documented many cemeteries.

“The WPA had a cemetery listing project,” Stainback said.

That effort in the 1930s was valuable in documenting births and deaths that took place before 1913, she said. Before that date, the state did not record those statistics.

Other efforts to document cemeteries can be found on websites such as findagrave.com.

Members of the public who know of family cemeteries that may not be documented are encouraged to contact Stainback at 492-3051.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.