To have the privilege to grow up in south is special. To grow up in rural Sampson County was ever more special. But living in the south brings many customs which we hold dear but people in other parts of the world think are odd at best. One of the oddest for me is the fact that I grew up with a small family graveyard in my yard. My grandmother, Martha Annie Keen and her parents, George Hampton and Jinnet Warren Keen, who lived on this farm and were buried on a hill in our side yard. These graves were always there and became a part of my childhood scenery.
Today I live in Johnston County, again in a rural area and family cemeteries dot the landscape. In fact I can walk to three family cemeteries in less than five minutes from my house. History abounds in cemeteries. One of the interesting things that I have learned about these around my house is that they are all related. The oldest female of the Lee cemetery, Maggie Westbrook Lee is the sister of the oldest male of the Westbrook cemetery, Stephen Westbrook. The third cemetery, also a Lee cemetery is brother to Maggie’s husband, Henry Lee. So as a genealogist, these existing family cemeteries are a place where connections can be made. Too often we want to research solely online but actually visiting graveyards can give us a true sense of first hand history. From them, we can learn names and dates, family relationships, and the land or area that they lived.
I believe that the cemetery in my yard growing up played a constant reminder for me of family both past and present. I never met these relatives and their headstones created a mystery for me of the past. My father, Etheridge Waylon Bass, instilled a sense of pride in family and the farmland which his family had owned for five generations. He told stories about these people; my mother passed along stories that her mother-in-law shared and all of these became an avid interest of mine which exist still today.
Family cemeteries were long tended by the living members of the family. As in the case of the one that I have always known, we mowed the grass and changed the flowers regularly. For other families, the story is different as family land was sold or families died out. Down Roanoke Road where I grew up, there are several McLamb cemeteries that still exist. Like the ones near my house today, they represent a story of connection. Each of these families is related to the other and the land that they owned collectively was great. But over time, land was sold off and now only a few of those McLambs are living on the land that once created a large tract of McLamb land. I remember my Aunt Esther McLamb Bass’s parents are buried in one of these family plots. Each year members of her family would come from Benson and clean off the cemetery and tidy it up. It showed love and respect. Today “cleaning the family cemetery” has become an outdated event, sadly.
Back in the late 1980s and even today there has been a push to identify where graves are located. In each county in NC, books have been published which chronicle where the cemeteries are located and who is buried within them. This is an excellent project. For the historian, it saves time because the directions to the cemetery. Even though it is illegal to destroy a family cemetery, many have been removed from the landscape. Some may have been pushed off to allow for more farmland, a building or progress such as a road to happen. Some may have disappeared as headstones weren’t permanent and over time, they disappeared from the landscape. But whatever the reason, we should be vigilant to ensure the existing cemeteries of today remain.
The Find A Grave website has become a presence in cemetery identification. This certainly helps those who are too far from a cemetery to visit but there is certainly something to actually visiting the spot where your ancestors are buried…to see the land and neighborhood where they lived. It is a humbling feeling.
The stones in a graveyard are also keys to understanding the people buried there. My great grandparents’ stones are obelisks and stand tall. George Hampton Keen died in 1924 and during this time frame, such styles were popular. My great-great uncle, Marion Keen is buried in another Keen family cemetery with the same type stone down a path, across the road from my yard cemetery. I have also found their brother’s (Henry Harvey Keen) grave at Stone’s Creek Church cemetery on Hwy 55 and his stone is extremely similar. He was buried a few years after my great grandfather, George. Symbols on the stones can give added meaning to the relatives life such as the Woodmen shape and Masonic symbols not to mention the epitaphs that are written on many of older tombstones.
Family cemeteries give us clues to the history of community in which we live. They help us to understand the connections between families and more information about the time period in which they lived. Keep your eyes peeled the next time you are riding in the country of Sampson and surrounding counties. Take your time, stop and read… you may learn something of interest to your family history story.