As I child I enjoyed trips to Roseland Park Cemetery to feed the ducks. If you are unfamiliar, Roseland Park Cemetery is located off West Seventh Street in Hattiesburg, adjacent to the old Hercules plant. It featured a small duck pond that I loved visiting. Feeding the ducks was one of my fondest childhood memories. Unfortunately, during my most recent trip to Roseland Park, I found the duck pond heavily grown over and the water barely visible. The overall condition of the cemetery had diminished. I think that is unfortunate because cemeteries are important places.
I understand that for some people, visiting cemeteries is a heart breaking destination, but to me visiting cemeteries is about finding peace and appreciating history. I have never felt the emotional heaviness some people describe about a cemetery. Instead, I find cemeteries a place of mindful retrospection. I feel a connection to the person whose name is etched in granite. Memories of conversations and good times shared immediately come to mind.
Most gravestones have names and dates etched on them, but many of them also carry sentiments of what the deceased believed or valued. Some gravestones have wedding dates or military service; some have Bible verses, poems, Christian Crosses, Jewish Stars of David, or Masonic imagery etched on them. Old gravestones are my favorite; they often include statutes of lambs, angels, tree trunks, or fingers pointing at Heaven. Names, dates, and relationships generate so many questions. How did these people come to be married to each other? How did parents cope with losing so many children? What awful disease caused young people to die so soon? What was it like living in those times?
Cemeteries are valuable to our collective local history. The most well-known local historical cemetery is downtown Hattiesburg’s Oaklawn Cemetery. If you walk the cemetery grounds, you can find the graves of timber baron/Hattiesburg mayor W.S.F. Tatum, and governors Paul B. Johnson, Sr., and Paul B. Johnson, Jr. The cemetery also has the grave of Gladis “Petal” Polk – namesake of the City of Petal. She was only age two when she died in 1904 of diphtheria.
One of my favorite cemeteries in Mississippi is a rural church cemetery in the Church Hill community, off of Highway 553 in Jefferson County. This area of Mississippi was settled by English loyalists who were basically refugees from the American Revolution. The cemetery has gravestones dating back to the early 1800s, along with a few modern ones. The church on site is Christ Church Episcopal. The church building is both austere and beautiful - having a strong resemblance to an English county church. I found that the doors were unlocked during my visit. This allowed visitors to go inside to pray, meditate, or just admire the sunlight shining through the magnificent stained-glass windows. The church and the cemetery were one of Mississippi author Eudora Welty’s favorite spots to visit. She was known to take photographs of the gravestones and kept a collection of them.
Mississippi’s most well-known cemetery is probably Natchez City Cemetery. It is home to the famous “Turning Angel” monument. The story of the “Turning Angel” began on March 14, 1908, when the Natchez Drug Company was rocked by an explosion that killed five employees – the youngest was only 12 years old. The five employees were buried in a row and the owner of Natchez Drug Company purchased a monument of an angel to guard their gravesites. Legend has it that the angel appears to turn as you pass. On multiple times I have walked and driven by the angel statute, but never perceived it turning to look at me. Obviously some people have different experience with the angel.
For most of my life I was clueless about the final resting spots of older generations of my family, but through the power of findagrave.com, I found family graves going back to the early 1800s. The oldest family grave that I’ve been able to visit has been my 5th great grandfather, who moved from South Carolina to the Mississippi Territory after the Annex of 1812. While we share DNA and a last name, I ponder how different his life must have been from mine.
Cemeteries are a good place to pause and reflect on life and history. Life is full of contradictions. No place is that more true than a cemetery. It is a place dedicated to the memory of the deceased, yet cemeteries are a place for the living.
Keith Ball is a local attorney and a lifelong resident of the Friendly City.