Living on the West End: The village graveyard
By Bill Shepard
I remember when the little graveyard was fairly young as graveyards age.
I grew up within a good hand throw of the place that had been set aside as a burial place. It was a triangular spot of the good earth that lay beside what is now called Weaver Street.
In its early days, there were no names given to the streets of the old mill village. What is now called Weaver Street was called the old Hartsville Highway. The little graveyard was not given a name except that of graveyard! If it had another, I never heard it!
As a small boy, not yet old enough to attend school, I can remember watching funerals being held inside the graveyard. If I saw the big black hearse approaching the site, I would sometimes approach it too!
I would be careful to stay out of sight of those who were part of the funeral. I would be too far away to hear anything being said, but I could see folks wiping their eyes and I knew they were crying, and I would feel sorry for them. When the service ended and the people had all gone, I would run home and tell Mama all about what I had seen.
Mama would look up from what she was doing and say, “Something is going to get you at that graveyard one of these days!” That would frighten me! In later years, when I would be passing by the graveyard alone, I would remember the words Mama had said and I would run!
During the early part of the last century, there were a lot of early childhood diseases that killed many young children. The little graveyard became the resting place for many who died as a result of those diseases. The little graveyard filled rapidly, and as can be seen today, with short graves.
There were epidemics of childhood diseases that took the lives of too many children in that early period. Measles, chicken pox, smallpox, typhoid fever and the dreaded whooping cough are a few this writer can name.
Of them all, whooping cough was the most dreaded. A baby or small child would begin to cough and continue until they would lose their breath, start vomiting and often die. This writer can recall seeing all of the above happening; it was a pitiful thing to see. A lack of medical attention was the cause of many deaths among the villagers. The village nurse did all she could, but too often that was not enough!
When the graveyard was condemned for use as a burial place, it was allowed to go unattended and became a shameful place to see. No one seemed to care! Most of the village folks had died or moved away.
Years passed. One day I traveled back to the village and found myself walking among the gravesites. The graveyard had been cleared of the way it had been allowed to become. It looked like a beautiful park!
An elderly man, sitting on his porch nearby, left his chair and approached where I was. We shook hands and he asked if I had relatives buried in the graveyard. The place was so pretty I had to ask what happened. He took off his hat, leaned back against a tree, and told his story. I returned to my home and wrote his story. Here it is: “The Man in the Graveyard.”
In a lonely graveyard in my hometown
With its broken headstones and sunken mounds,
‘I chanced to stroll one hot summer day,
Lazily passing some time away.
Broken tombstones and sunken mounds
Gave me the shivers as I walked around.
I read the epitaphs of the young and old,
And thought as I had grown older, I also grew bold.
For there was a time in the years gone by
That I wouldn’t have been there, maybe dead but not alive!
And I really didn’t know why I was here today,
Visiting with these, so long passed away.
An old man approached from across the way,
Said, “Howdy, sure is hot today!”
“Do you know anybody out here?” he said.
I answered no, and then I read.
A story was forming in his mind
And I knew he’d tell it if I gave him time.
He leaned back against a large cedar tree,
Pulled off his hat and looked straight at me.
“When I first moved here,” he said with a sigh,
“The bushes and briars and grass were head high;
“The graveyard was thrown away, it seemed,
“And then one night, I had a dream.”
“You see that broken headstone?” and he pointed to the fence.
I nodded that I did, and I saw him sort of wince.
“Well, one night, I dreamed about that man buried there.”
Then he kinda choked up, swallowed hard and wiped away a tear.
“I dreamed that the old man was crying,
“And I asked him why.”
And he answered,
“Mister, this place is so grown up,
“I can’t see a thing passing by.”
“Down the road a ways, I know there’s a store
“But the bushes and trees are so high, I can’t see it anymore.”
Then I remembered something my dad long ago had said,
“Son, if you want to help someone, help one who can’t help himself.”
“I made a promise to that man and I’ve kept it for sure.
“I said I’d clean this place so he could see that store.
“Next morning when I awoke, I knew what was facing me.
“I was gonna clean this place so that many could see.
“So I went to work with my ax and a mower,
“And I cut a path so he could see that store.
“I picked up the bottles, the wire and the cans
“I worked until blisters covered my hands.
“I worked long hours until this graveyard was clean,
“Then I fertilized the grass so it would turn green.
“I’ve kept it this way all by myself.
“You see, nobody else seems to want to help.”