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HENSLEY: Unmarked graves have so many stories to tell

By Judith Hensley
Contributing columnist

Most of us have recently visited a loved one’s grave. In our neck of the woods, “Decoration Day” is not just the traditional Memorial Day but is a family day set aside on a certain week end each year to literally decorate the graves of departed loved ones.

I recently went with my parents to the Hensley Cemetery at Martin’s Fork, Kentucky. We did not attend Decoration Day this year but went to visit my brother’s grave and check on the live flowers my mom and youngest brother bring to his grave each year. He did not care for artificial flowers. He was amused by the notion of putting “fake flowers” on dead people’s graves but noted that it made the family feel better to do something in remembrance of the departed loved ones. We were happy to find there had been enough rain to keep the pots of flowers healthy and full of blossoms.

This was an unusual year due to COVID-19. Not as many people traveled from out of state for this annual gathering. Traditionally, a church service complete with preaching and singing is held at one end of the graveyard while visitors walk freely across the cemetery and speak to old friends and catch up with family. It is a time for keeping family connections going forward.

Many relatives spend hundreds of dollars each year to decorate the headstones and graves of their departed beloved. With so many vibrant colors, the place looks like a flower garden.

Yet in a year, all of this loveliness will fade and will be tossed into the trash pile, the graves cleaned, and new adornments added for another year. It is tradition. It is a link between past, present, and future. Those living now can expect their resting places to be covered in floral creations (live or artificial) far into the future.

I decided to take a photo of some of the old stones, weathered, words erased, that dominate one section of the land. It occurred to me that these burial markers were once well known by the individuals left behind their family members. Once upon a time, someone knew exactly who was buried at each stone marker. But the people who died and the people who knew and loved them have all faded into oblivion. All that remains are well shaped rocks, worn down through decades of weathering until nothing recognizable remains in many cases.

Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but I know that each one of those markers which shows the resting place of an individual also marks a life that was full of love, adventures, stories, hopes, dreams, and an end. How many love stories are buried beneath those stones? How many Civil War heroes? Who were the brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children, and grandparents which settled this area so long ago that their presence was felt in the building of a family and community through generations, but their names no longer known?

There was an occasional flower bunch pressed into the soil in front of a stone. I prefer them standing stark in the midst of more recent graves as a reminder to us all that time passes, memories fade, and the importance of a life is if they made their peace with God, if they loved well, and if they made a difference in their time here on this planet.

When I pass, I don’t even care if my name appears carved into stone to mark my grave. I would prefer a ledger stone that would read, “Any good thing that I may do for any living creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”