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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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Graveyards: Providing the living with insight into the past


These crypts and tombs at Christ Church are the final resting places for some of the wealthiest colonial families in Middlesex County.
Graveyards often reflect the deepest feelings of love and affection, such as an embossed rose and the name “Mother.” This headstone is at historic St. Mary’s White Chapel near Lively.
Some headstones at historic White Chapel near Lively lean in different directions and mark the final resting place for generations of Lancaster County families.

by Larry S. Chowning

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.
– Edgar Lee Masters

These first lines of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology speaks to the mysteries of lives left behind by death.

The Spoon River Anthology, published by Masters in 1914, takes the reader through the graveyard of the fictitious small town of Spoon River. His use of short free-form poems collectively describe the townspeople, their journeys through life, their final resting places, and their last signatures—headstones. 

The Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula have many cemeteries and thousands of grave headstones. Some are guarded behind the most elaborate iron fences, denoting wealth and esteem. Some tombs are so sturdy they have lasted for centuries, showing that the family or person was able to leave a lasting impression on time.

Every Rivah county has interesting graveyards and much can be learned from the headstones found there. For anyone interested in history, the tombstones of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula provide insight into the very beginnings of this country, and carry us through all the wars and tribulations associated with the creation of this nation.

The full-body tombs or crypts at the early Anglican churches and the sturdy iron fences and white marble headstones of the antebellum period tell us that these were the families or persons who were the “somebody” of their time.

The magnitude of the gravestones speak to the wealth disparity of people while they were alive, but in the end there is an uplifting feeling that life is fair. Regardless of one’s riches on earth, everyone dies—and that is one of the few fair deals life gives us.

Yet, the stones also speak to the fact that life before death isn’t always fair. Tombstones reflect that so many children were taken from this earth long before they reached adulthood, young mothers died in childbirth, and young men died in war.

Gravestone Messages
Often, what’s embossed on a gravestone gives us insight into that person’s life and the impact they had in their community. Atop the tomb of Philemon T. Woodward at Mattaponi Baptist Church in King and Queen County is a stone pen and ink bottle, and the inscription on his headstone states he was the clerk of Middlesex County for 40 years of his esteemed life.

Just a few stones over from Woodward there is Rev. Alfred Bagby who, in 1908, wrote the first history book on King and Queen County. This historic feat is embossed on his headstone.

There being no natural stones in the area, graves were sometimes marked with “ballast stones.” These rocks had been placed low in the hold of sailing ships as a counterbalance. In Mathews County, there are graveyards with ballast stones used as both head and foot stones. Those unable to purchase a headstone used a ballast stone instead. When funds did become available, some families added a headstone to the grave, while other names have been lost to time with only the ballast stone to mark their existence.

There used to be numerous Southern Cross of Honor “Iron Cross” grave markers around Middlesex County but they are all gone to unscrupulous treasure hunters who peddle the honor of the dead. The markers were purchased and placed on graves of family members and loved ones around 1910 by members of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

Many interesting people were often buried in private graveyards. The 1716 tomb of Lucy Burwell Berkeley engraved with a very interesting English Coat of Arms is one of the oldest tombs in the region. It is in a private graveyard on the Barn Elms property near Hartfield. Lucy was married to Edmund Berkely of Barn Elms. She was reportedly one of the most beautiful women in the colony. Before she married, Lucy attracted the romantic attention of a much older Virginia governor, Sir Francis Nicholson, who threatened to harm any man who married Lucy. The governor became so obsessed with Lucy that Queen Anne of England ordered him to return to Great Britain.

One of the most interesting and well-preserved graveyards is the church yard at St. Mary’s White Chapel in Lancaster County. The tombs and headstones range from the 18th century to today. The caretakers of the graveyard gathered information on important people and their relationship to the area, and attached this information to their headstones. Just walking through and reading the headstone information provides a marvelous history lesson.

On a more humble note, markers are not always manmade as walks through the forest will often turn up sunken spots in the ground, a sure sign that cedar and cypress crosses have long since rotted away, leaving nature to mark the gravesite.

Whether it’s a prominent cemetery or a nature cemetery, one gets a feeling that God and man have come to an agreement—that man’s final resting place on earth is marked for future generations to see.

posted 09.27.2012

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