Friday, July 5, 2013

Touring: Ordinary Cemeteries

Above and below A small 200+ year-old cemetery.

When you're out tooling around in your sporty car on a fun run, you might want to stop at a rural cemetery.  It's a nice change of pace from the Dairy Queen (or whatever your standard fun run breaker-upper is).

Cemeteries don't creep me out.  They're local history museums.  There's a small one several miles from my house full of Irishmen and women who died from the 1850's to the 1890's.  It's on a lovely hillside, overlooking the town of Deselm, which no longer exists.  Deselm was a way-station on the Illinois & Michigan Canal.  The I&M was dug mostly by immigrant Irishmen.  With picks and shovels.  The work was hard, the working conditions were awful, and many died from malaria.  Some settled in Deselm to become farmers or storekeepers.  When the I&M Canal dried up metaphorically, Deselm dried up literally.

There are two large cemeteries in Morris, IL.  One on each side of town.  Both are still in use.  One was "the Protestant cemetery" and the other was "the Catholic cemetery."  My detached sense of amusement at this probably wasn't shared by the inhabitants.  Seven Civil War veterans are buried together in the Protestant cemetery, in a wagon-spoke pattern, with their heads near each other and the marker for their unit.  Their feet are equidistant points on a circle maybe 18 feet in diameter, around which a cemetery road turns.  They died at different times in the 1880's and 1890's. Why are they are buried this way?  I haven't found any Morrisites who know, or many who even know they're there.  Other Civil War veterans are buried in the same cemetery in the conventional way, with their family members.

Although he is a veteran, the neighbor mentioned in my previous post about the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery will not be buried there.  Intstead, he'll join four previous generations of extended family buried in Kankakee, IL.  He was the first boy in his family to go college, which got him off the farm (fine with him!) and into a career with Caterpillar.  The first of those four generations bought 40 acres (or more) when Federal land in northern Illinois was opened to homesteading.  They've been here ever since.  His brother still operates the family farm (but the next generation won't).  There are two very small cemeteries near the farms, where some of the first generations were buried.  I've visited both with him, and seen the restored one-room school house where he got his elementary education.  Before automobiles, he says, there used to be small General Stores within a 5-mile walk of your farm where County Roads intersected.  They're been gone for 90 years.  His grandchildren grew up in modern cities, all 200 miles or more away from him.  If any of them return to northeastern Illinois, it will be to a fancy job in Chicago.

My own family reflects a similar diaspora.  In the 1830's, an extended family of farmers moved from New England to Upstate New York, where they remained for two generations.  In the 1870's, many of them acquired a college education and disbursed.  The next three generations disbursed further.  We are now spread out from coast to coast, north to south.  Two people in my kids' generation have dual citizenship (U.S. and Italian).  One of my grandsons has dual citizenship (U.S. and Irish.)  We long ago lost our roots in, and connection to, Upstate New York.  The only time I've been there was to watch sports car races at Watkins Glen.

One reason cemeteries don't creep me out is that I grew up next to one.  Again: it illustrates the history of northeastern Ohio in one acre.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, Connecticut could not afford to pay its veterans in cash.  But it had a questionable western lands claim.  Its price for signing on to the Constitution was free farmland for its vets in "The Connecticut Western Reserve"--northeastern Ohio. Thus the name of the University in Cleveland.  The earliest graves in the cemetery are those of a handful of families who homesteaded the village.  For them, and for succeeding generations of additional families, there was heartbreak we've been spared by modern medicine.  You find headstones with born/died dates of women who died young, probably in or as a result of childbirth, and children who lived for months or a few years.

So it is impressive to me to visit a cemetery where several generations of extended family are buried near each other.  Rural cemeteries tell a tale and are pleasant, peaceful, places to contemplate the past.  I haven't yet exhausted this resource in northern Illinois.  But I've already noticed on Google Map that there are half a dozen similar cemeteries tucked into valleys near the Tail of the Dragon.  I plan to visit them.

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