Old cemeteries – really old cemeteries – have a special feeling about them. You have only to walk into one to feel the solemnity, the quiet dignity, the presence of people long gone and nearly forgotten. The feeling is palpable and I experience it every time I enter an old graveyard. It's as though the dead demand quiet and, through the stones and markers, demand your honor and respect. A visit to an old cemetery on a cool fall morning is an experience that will be hard to forget. The damp chilly air, the fog that hovers over the ground, the wet moss-covered headstones and monuments, their carving exaggerated by the moisture, the huge cypress trees with their bark turned black by the dew, and the wet grass, now with a cool silvery appearance, all move to slow you down, to force you to move quietly, reminding you to honor and respect the dead.
Green Hill Cemetery on Main Street in Luray, Virginia, is such a cemetery. Green Hill was laid out, as they say, in 1877, so it is not what you would consider ancient. Still, it is an old cemetery where most of the burials took place before the turn of the twentieth century. There are approximately 2,500 graves in Green Hill, 2,000 of which are marked with monuments or headstones. Sadly, the remaining 500 are merely depressions in the ground now and many, if not all, are lost forever.
The nineteen seventies were not kind to cemeteries such as Green Hill, when bands of African-American youth roamed through towns all over America, attempting to destroy anything that reminded them of the racial hatred of the past. Green Hill Cemetery suffered terribly as stones and monuments were defaced, destroyed or stolen. There is still a high stone wall around the perimeter and the huge iron gate still stands at the entrance but over in the far right rear corner are the sad remnants of headstones that were shattered beyond recognition or repair, testament to those times.
I walked into Green Hill Cemetery one fine fall morning, intent on finding the graves of my grandfather's first wife, Mary Catherine Ruffner Barham, and her fifteen year old son, Hubert, both of whom had died from Typhoid Fever back in 1892. As I walked through that hundred and fifty year old iron gate I couldn't help but marvel at the beautifully carved, moss-covered stones and monuments. Many of the massive granite stones, monuments and statues had settled into the earth from their enormous weight and now sat askew, leaning in one direction or another, but the carving on them was still legible, identifying and honoring the loved ones below.
To the right, just inside of the gate, is the grave of Gabriel Smith, a town policeman in the 1880's, whose son, Frank Smith, was one of three men who was to have gone to Texas with my grandfather in 1883. I had read an article from the Page County Courier that Frank had died in Texas and had been brought back to Virginia to be buried in the family cemetery plot. Sure enough, just to the left of Gabriel and his wife was Frank P. Pierce, my grandfather's Texas travelling companion. Somehow I felt as though I was visiting an old friend.
I walked along the path farther into the cemetery and came to the impressive memorial at the grave of one of my grandfather's commanding officers in Company K of the 10th Virginia Infantry, Lieutenant David Grayson, or Davey Grayson, as he was called. Davey had come from a wealthy family, had lived through the war and became an attorney, remaining right here in town his entire life. He was now surrounded by his family, his children and their children. I couldn't help but think back over the documents I had read about David Grayson, all indicating he was a fine young man and a good and trustworthy friend. He had been wounded several times during the war and had been captured twice but he survived all of his wounds and his imprisonment to return to his company and, later, to his home.
There, on the other side of the path, is Richard Parks, another of Ben's Captains during the war. Dick Parks too had lived throught the war and returned to Luray to live and die there. There is Townsend Young, the man who actually formed the Page volunteers, back in 1861, and the first Captain of Company K of the 10th Virginia Infantry. These three men led the company and my grandfather through four years of that terrible war, from First Manassas to Gettysburg and finally to Spotsylvania Courthouse, where they were all captured and sent to prisoner of war camps in the north. Ironically, all three returned to Luray after the war and all three died in the order that they departed command of Company K. Now they all rest in the quiet shade of Green Hill Cemetery.
The names all have very special meaning for me. People who appear time and time again in my research are all here and, again, that feeling that they are old friends is strong and moving. They are etched into my mind and into the history of Page County. Names that I know very well such as Aleshire, Bixler, Brubaker, Coffman, Foltz, Huffman, Mauck, Ruffner and on and on. I've read about these people in old deeds, in old tax lists and in old newspapers. I've heard their stories, I've read their gossip and I've been to their homes. I know them and they are truly my friends. They're as much a part of me as they're a part of the history of Page County. I sadly stood over their graves, I prayed for them and I missed them.
I walked down the back hill that slopes away from the circle that marked the cemetery's center and there, at the bottom and just to the right, were the graves of my grandfather's brother, Thomas Henry Barham, and his wife, Mary Jane Judd Barham, both of whom died in the twenties. I walked around the little mounded area and found Samuel Randolph Barham, Thomas' son, who died in 1910 at only twenty four. There is Thomas Thurman Barham, another son, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Strickler Barham. I stopped and said a prayer for these aunts and uncles, these family members I knew so well. I lingered there, leaning down, cleaning-up the weeds and long grass that encrouched on the stones. Sadly, I found no stones marking the graves of Mary or Hubert.
I had about given up and was preparing to leave when I noticed two spaces on one corner of the plot where two shallow depressions marked graves. I knew – I knew with all my heart - that Mary Catherine and her young son, Hubert, were there in those unmarked graves. I said a prayer for both of them, knowing that they had been lost and forgotten for so many years but now they had been found. It may sound a little silly and sentimental but I felt as though they were finally coming home.
Dan Barham © 2006