It is week 21 in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing challenge. For this week, the writing prompt is Tombstone.
Marking the places where the dead are buried is a human practice older than recorded history with some of the oldest known stone markers dating back to 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. Known as dolmens or chamber tombs, they were megalithic monuments. The earliest tombstones, like the dolmen, were a stone or stones covering the entire grave. Unlike earlier tombstones, today’s headstones are much smaller, serving as memorials for the deceased. While some headstones are simple, carved only with the deceased’s initials or name, others are elaborately carved or decorated, with each symbol representing a theme or feeling. Some of my favorite family headstones contain these symbols (with these meanings):
- Anchor: Steadfast hope
- Book: Faith, wisdom
- Dove: Holy Spirit, purity
- Garland: Victory over death
- Hands: Relationship, affection
- Heart: Devotion, love
- Ivy: Faithfulness, memory
- Lamb: Innocence, youth
- Lily: Purity, resurrection
- Oak: Strength, resilience
- Skeleton or skull: Life’s brevity
- Weeping willow: Mourning, grief
Now, one would think that the theme “tombstone” would be a relatively (no pun intended) easy one for family historians/genealogists. So why, with so many headstones in our combined family trees from which to choose, am I having such a difficult time highlighting just one?
As I browsed my images library, I was surprised to note a few family members whose worn-down or missing headstones had been replaced by some of their descendants. Some of those ancestors are James Campbell and his wife Jane (Sample) Campbell (my 6th great-grandparents), Edward Foulke (my spouse’s 8th great-grandfather), and Abraham Sell (my 8th great-grandfather). How wonderful that their progeny decided to rededicate their lives by remarking their final resting places. That is indeed a great tribute.
Sadly, for every family member whose final resting place has been rededicated, dozens upon dozens are lying in unmarked graves or whose final resting place is unknown. Each time I come across an ancestor with either or unmarked or unknown burial site, it depresses me a bit.
It is especially sad when that ancestor is more recent. For example, David Henry Noel (my 2nd great-grandfather) was so impoverished that when he died in 1932, he was buried in an unmarked grave beside his wife Elizabeth (Fogle) Noel, whose headstone was placed 11 years earlier.
Then, there is the father-son-son trio of Pearl Francis (my 5th great-grandfather), Lunsford Francis (my 4th great-grandfather), and Henry Francis (my 5th great-uncle) who, in 1850, caught the “gold fever” sweeping the nation. The three left the farmlands of Missouri for the goldfields of California to join Pearl’s other sons, William Jackson and Granville. Sadly, Pearl and Henry never made it to their final destination. They died en route from cholera and were buried in a poorly marked grave 800 miles away, not far from Fort Laramie, Wyoming. (Today, no trace of their shared grave has been found.) Lunsford supposedly died 17 years later, but where he died and where he was buried are unknown.
Pearl’s father, Henry Francis, Jr. (my 6th great-grandfather) fought in and survived both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. When he did pass away at the ripe old age of 85, Henry was buried in Horsehead Township, Johnson County, Arkansas. Unfortunately, circa 1950, the Horsehead Lake was created, and the final resting place of Henry Francis, Jr. was submerged beneath the water.