Even though it’s the 2nd week in September, I wanted to relate my experience at the South Side Cemetery on August 31, as the the oppressive end of summer heat belied the fact that Autumn is starting in the mid-Atlantic. I drive by this (and a few other) cemeteries on my way to and from work everyday, and have been meaning to stop and walk around for a couple years. I have always had a fascination with the stillness, peacefulness and tranquility that emanates over the walls of the resting places of the dead. I can feel its calm even as I drive by, catching quick glances of the trees or tall monuments.
Perhaps because I grew up so close to two: the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery and the St. Clair Cemetery could be seen from my bedroom window. As children, my neighborhood friends and I walked and played (respectfully) in them, as they were full of trees and wide spaces. As I grew older, the names and dates on the stones started to mean something; it meant that a human being who walked this earth, someone’s loved one, someone’s friend was laid to rest here. The older the dates, the more fascinating they were (history nerd alert!) There were early settlers, Civil War and World War II vets, children, lovers, grandparents. Looking at the headstones I see names that don’t mean anything to me, but there they are all the same, calling out, asking to be spoken. To be remembered. If I could explain the feeling I get when I explore a cemetery that might be the closest; desire for acknowledgement. These tombstones, plaques and family crypts are here and call out to be remembered. They quietly say to me: I. Was. Here. It strikes me even as I write this, we all want someone to remember us, to have our life mean something, to be a dear memory to someone. As we all face our own mortality, it’s comforting to know we have never been alone in our struggle. It is the human condition, Memento Mori.
I captured some pictures of my visit on my phone’s digital camera as well as an older Nikon which I have started to take pictures with too. I found it at my dad’s and it has piqued a budding interest in photography, one that I didn’t even know I had.
The picture on the right is the quintessential “cemetery tree” in my opinion: it’s old, a little worn, yet always watchful. It seems to be damaged, or sick, since it doesn’t have limbs full of leaves. But I think regardless of its physical state, it offers what shady protection it can, and still serves its duty as a marker for the stones and people below it.
Forgive me if you can’t see the dates on the large stone in the center picture, it caught my eye because it was a family who had lost 4 children while they were young; a sad yet common occurrence in the 19th century, one that I cannot even begin to imagine. You can’t see the father’s date of birth/death, but he must have fought and survived the Civil War. His wife survived until 1907, but all their children unfortunately died. It makes my heart ache just looking at the 2 names on the end, John & Harry, 1864-1865. They must have been twins…
The last picture I caught on my way out, it says “Corp. Wm. J. Sapp, CO.F., 90th Ohio Infantry.” I remember saying to myself, wait, that definitely sounds like a Civil War unit. Sure enough, it was. That man survived one of the bloodiest American conflicts, lived out the rest of his life and was buried here, in South Side Cemetery alongside other members of his family. And here I am in 2018, in awe, looking at his tombstone. He was a part of an Ohio infantry, not Pennsylvania, so what made him move here? A job? Family? So many questions.
This was such a beautiful and haunting memorial for a family, also from the 19th century.
I did not tread too closely to these little angels, but preferred to admire from a distance. Were they protecting the graves of children? I’ll have to return and see. Unfortunately, the day I visited it was close to 90 degrees with sweltering August humidity. I barely lasted 20 minutes here, and that was only due to the gracious trees.
I am so curious about these family crypts, they have always intrigued me. They’re all over cemeteries here, and sometimes there’s a window, or a glass door (sometimes an open door!) or rusty gate that allows you a peak inside… We used to scare each other as children and dare the bravest to go up the steps to touch it. They never frightened me, it just stirred an unquenchable desire to know more. I didn’t expect to (nor ever did!) see anything remiss in these quiet mausoleums. Oftentimes, you could tell that the flowers were changed, a Bible moved, or that someone had sat in the lonely chair left for visitors…