by Amanda Bourne
Before we renovated the dining room, there was a picture on the wall where the wardrobe now stands. An ordinary picture, perhaps, for an old house. Wooden frame curved at the top, square at the bottom. A man in a grey white beard sits sternly, with a young boy at his feet, both looking at the camera. Who knows how old it is. The sepia negative looks more like a painting than a picture, but I know better. There’s something about the eyes that glisten with life: perhaps that’s why it scared me as a child. The old man, sitting, glaring out of the frame, watching me. The shy smile on the young boy’s face is all the more unnerving in light of the glare.
The young boy was my grandfather.
They’re sitting in a wooden house. A stack of firewood is on the right. Both probably went up like a torch during the house fire, just like the previous house at the site had burned when set ablaze by the British in 1812. But we still excavated the site before my aunt built her house on top. We found a few remainders – the pipe the old man in the picture might have smoked, bricks from a chimney that turned the firewood to smoke and ashes.
Ashes. Entire forests in the west succumb to fire and become skeletons of ash, fostering new growth. New growth – this is how my father explained controlled burnings to me – burning with a purpose. This burning replenishes the nutrients in the volatile Midwestern plains. But on the East Coast, fires tend to be accidental – our sandy loam soil doesn’t require the heavy nutrients of ash, so the dark streaky outlines that betray its presence often indicate some sort of story, some sort of history. But why do we remember some histories, and not others? If archeologists halfway around the world excavate every sign of human existence, why do we leave entire sites untouched? Are we that afraid of the ghosts under our earth?
There’s a little clearing along the old oxen road that runs through our property, and if you didn’t know, you’d just walk along, distracted by the glistening grey water of the nearby creek.
But I know that when I walk in that clearing, I’m walking on bones that once were living, breathing beings. Of who or what, I do not know. That much has been lost to collective memory. Old maps called it Fox Run Cemetery.
What I do know is that there are no headstones, and thus, no markers of who or how many are buried there. But that also means that the graveyard is from the colonial era – wooden headstones rot away, and tobacco farmers in a distant colony have little money for long-lasting memorials to themselves.
Yet, no headstones means that every step I take could be atop of the deep rich soil left by decaying matter – wooden coffins only last for so long, and so unlike our stone boxes and coffins guaranteed to last five decades, the elements must have quickly seeped through, leaving only unusually rich soil, much like the ashy soil from controlled burnings.
But our ashes are bones and blood and were once living, moving beings.
My father found a coffin nail when digging a hole for a fence post. He told me about it on the hillside behind my grandmother’s house, pausing as we watched the sun sink slowly behind the horizon. Where? He nods towards the black cedar shadows on the horizon, but all he says is that he moved the fence that he’d been working on.
“I stopped digging” he tells me, solemnly, looking out into the dusk.
Are we selective about “our” dead? The other graveyard on the map, this one is the one we tell visitors about. They giggle nervously, or remark on the family history as they pass through the clearing, and then the oddity of walking on an unmarked graveyard becomes a part of their experience at the farm, nothing more. And while this is part of my experience as well, it is a part of daily life in a way that sometimes I’d like to forget. I tramp across it to seek out cows from the meadow, or quietly slip through it at dusk when headed home across the fields. As a superstitious teenager, I utter a prayer and hope that my eyes are playing tricks on me when I am alone and a mile’s walk from home. Perhaps living with them, and publicly confessing them makes them more real. Am I more afraid of the ghosts that I admit to, rather than the ghosts shrouded in silence and mystery? I wonder if we are more selective because, once we talk about them, we must then own them as a part of ourselves and our past. I am afraid of walking through the graveyard at dusk because I admit that they are there. This terrifies me. Perhaps, this is why my father keeps the second graveyard a secret – after all, we must live with these ghosts.
I open a new tab on my laptop and search ancestors bones. Alongside the many articles on ancient, now-disputed burial grounds, I discover the Malagasy people in Madagascar, who exhume their dead every few years (Holloway). They clean them, dress them, and dance with them for two days before committing them again to the ancestral crypt. They remember them until their bodies are completely decomposed and join the spirit world.
Native Hawaiians believe that the iwi, or bones, of a person hold their spirit, even after death. Disturbing or desecrating these bones harms both the spirit and descendants, which is why burial sites are watched over by those who claim the dead as ancestors (Native). Some bones are so important (those of rulers or chieftains) that they are buried in secret and the locations are never disclosed. Let the dead rest in peace, and the community will prosper.
I wonder sometimes if it is right to silence the dead – to say nothing of that second graveyard or of the forgotten people who might be there. For how long do we remember our dead? Or, in the case of stoneless graveyards – who are they? Are “our” dead the ones in graveyards with headstones that we publicly claim in history books? What about the silent ones – do we keep them hidden, or do we bring them to light – talk about them, find out who they were, and validate them in our historical narrative? The tricky thing about the dead is that once we talk about them, we have to own them. Or own up to them. We find graveyards of enslaved Africans in our earth – mutilated and broken – these are not just bones. They are our past, because slavery was a very real part of Colonial America. When I walk across the graveyards on the farm, I know that these bones may not have been considered humans – just bodies. Just labor. Just money.
I know that every time I walk across these graveyards, I must remember that this past is more present than I’d like to admit – that there’s another girl in the county, an African American girl, with my name, or that the first Bourne immigrant to Maryland was a ship-owner, whose cargo may have lived and died on the Atlantic journey. This is the past that we face when we own up to our dead.
How do you describe living a life that is so profoundly intertwined with history? Intertwined, and still culpable, as it were, for history, and for the past that you can’t change. A subjective oral history, written by my ancestors – the smiling boy in the eerie negative on the wall. His father, or perhaps his father before him – someone knew the story of those silent graveyards. But even the remembered stories… histories… fade from the memories of the living.
Until they’re just ghosts – hanging on the wall. Flitting in a clearing.
A coffin nail in a long-forgotten graveyard.
Holloway, April. “Turning of the Bones and the Madagascar Dance with the Dead.” Ancient Origins. N.p., 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.
“Native Burials: Human Rights And Sacred Bones.” Cultural Survival. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.