“You want to see our new tombstone?” Barbara Lemaster James proudly invited me. The question echoed like a question from long ago, “You want to watch our home movies?” Back then, no one ever wanted to watch anyone’s home movies or learn about the family dirt, let alone inspect their pre-bought tombstone before they died.
Already I was biting my tongue, thinking of a million jokes. I restrained myself, though, severely reminding myself that I am the genealogist and historian in the family. There might be implications here I may need to know. Get serious, Eric. “Of course,” I replied. “Let’s go.”
Barbara’s husband, Raymond Edward James, had a rough time this past year.
Cousin, Mark New, who’s a funeral director, suggested they select a plot among their James cousins, now buried at Mt. Zion Cemetery in Science Hill, Kentucky. Mark also maintains the expanding cemetery that once was part of his Grandmother Adams’ family farm.
When we all gathered at our annual family outing over the weekend, Barbara issued me her invitation.
I could have guessed some irrepressible James family dark humor would cut loose.
With Mark’s guidance, Raymond and Barbara had put some considerable thought into their selection. Unlike the plentiful black tombstones, which I found among numerous James all across the country, Raymond and Barbara selected a Confederate gray with dignified black engraving. Around two wedding rings linking their separate burial locations, they engraved their wedding date.
Each side was flanked by a receptacle. “What goes in there,” I asked.
“Yellow roses in mine,” Barbara quickly replied.
“And in Raymond’s?”
“Ice cream,” Raymond interjected. Ice cream, it is, I noted.
On the backside of their tombstone, Barbara and Raymond thoughtfully had engraved the names of their children, even those of Barbara’s by her earlier marriage.
“See,” Raymond pointed. “There’s the genealogy. Right there.” Raymond looked for my reaction. “Well, Eric, you’re not going to be around here forever!” he added.
Any sense of decorum, if any existed at all, now was broken. “Have you both lied down here before,” I asked. “There doesn’t seem to be enough length.”
Barbara snapped, “Oh yeah. We fit.”
Then came Barbara’s zinger. “And look, Eric. You can have this space, right next door.” I was stunned. Literally, stunned. To urge me further, Barbara tried closing the deal. “And there’s room further down the row, for all your Facebook friends.”
We paraded around the tombstones of the other James family buried there. Ivadean James caught my eye. The one and only time I met and talked with her was about a year before she died.
Ivadean never knew what happened to her father, Mack Henry James. He abandoned her family when she was a child. But Ivadean did get to know what happened to Mack before I did. My research found him about a year after Ivadean died, too late to tell her myself, except to share our mutual discovery in prayer.
For the first time, I noted, too, that Ivadean’s estranged husband, Gid Elliott, had died the day after she died, but in a different hospital. Things like that leave you wanting to know a story never told.
“Tombstones are important,” I said. They are good places to visit, and the best places to tell stories. No one seems to hold back when standing before a tombstone.
“What do you want on your tombstone,” Raymond’s daughter asked me.
“Easy,” I answered. “I want an electronic chip embedded in my stone. You dial a radio frequency and you can hear me personally greet you. “Hi, how are you? Nice of you to drop by. Did I ever tell you the story about…?”
“Yeah,” Raymond’s daughter shouted enthusiastically. “Let’s party!” I was assured I’d have my chip, on the condition I signed up for a party plot.
When we returned to the farmhouse, Mark had the tractor fired up with the hay wagon hitched behind. Every year, Mark drives a hayride full of kids up to the cemetery hill. They visit with their dead relatives, and tell stories.
Back at our table, I asked, “Is this one of those things where, if you get two others to sign up for a plot, you get your plot for free?” With that, we were off and running.
“Look at Mark,” someone said. “Come on, kids. Sign up now. Those old folks back there got theirs. You saw them come back. They’re trying to get others into yours.” From there, the jokes ran on and on.
I still expect to see Raymond and Barbara at next year’s annual gathering. And God forbid, if not…we’ll bring yellow roses, or ice cream, and plenty of stories.