As a child, my world was one spent somewhere between two medians – the mountainous and free spirited hills of Southern West Virginia’s coalfields and industrial Virginia.
Though I attended school in the Old Dominion, most of the life lessons I learned growing up occurred within the jagged borders of the Mountain State – it was there that I learned the value of family, heritage and the story of my ancestors. These traits grew to become defining principles I hope to not only exude in my own life, but to also pass down to my children.
To put it simply, West Virginians are different and proud of it. They live differently, love differently and remember differently. They… We… cherish our state’s remarkable and turbulent history. We were taught to appreciate the strength of our elders and grew to treasure the stories of bloody mine wars, early settlers and grandma’s pappy. In West Virginia, history lives through the impoverished children who sat at their daddy’s feet, listening to stories of brave men and women who gladly laid down their lives for the principle of a matter. Most early miners had nothing to leave to their children, nothing except for hundreds of stories and thousands of memories; yet these were the best inheritances any child could ever hope to receive.
It should then seem as no surprise that when it comes to disposing of our dead, we, in the hills of West Virginia, do things far differently than most other Americans. While the rest of the nation, by and large, lower their grandfathers beneath the dirt in a public cemetery – surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of strangers – West Virginians often return their fathers to plats of land that have been in the family’s name for countless decades or even centuries.
There, the very land of the family cemetery is sacred. For many, the thought of being buried anywhere other than alongside their brothers, parents, grandparents and even earlier generations would be unacceptable.
Just outside of the town limits of the community of Delbarton, in Mingo County, my family has a consecrated piece of ground that has been the site of countless tears, yet holds a dear place in the hearts of all of us who share a common name and common heritage – it is the Farley Family Cemetery. It’s not the only family cemetery alongside the winding stream known as Elk Creek – in fact there are a countless number of family burial sites throughout the valley, but this one is ours.
It is the only site I have ever seen my strong and unwavering father shed tears. It is the only site where I can come within a few feet of my great-great-great grandfather. It is the most sacred spot in the world for our family, yet it is one of thousands of family cemeteries in West Virginia; all of which are just as dear to someone else.
As the Virginia pioneers pushed farther west, they encountered a world that was isolated, rugged and a place where death’s cold shadow lurked behind every passing turn. Times were hard, but these men and women were resilient and they pressed on – undeterred by the sting of death.
As a matter of practicality, during the early years of Western Virginia’s history, families would clear out a small plot of land, often in wooded areas bordering their fields, and bury a child that succumbed to a fever or cough. Next, an uncle would be buried along side the child. Then a second child would be buried, followed by mother and father.
For the surviving children, these hallowed acres was the site of pain, maturity and the reality that life is indeed fragile — to put it simply, that piece of ground made them.
Therefore, as they grew older, they cherished those old burial sites, painstakingly mowing the sites, managing additional plots and working to ensure their children were grossly aware of the story each of the cold headstones told.
The remnants of these ancient cemeteries are still visible today, often just a few yards from the old family home place.
For our family, like so many others, the family cemetery remains a critical component of who we are and each time a family member dies, there is never a question relating to where that person will be buried.
Sadly, those old men who dedicated so many hours to maintaining the gardens of the dead — many of which have graves marked only by concrete (marble was too costly for many early West Virginians), have now joined their mothers and fathers beneath the soil in those same hallowed resting places.
With their passing, the question remains, “Who’s going to fill their shoes?” Who will step in and continue the work that had been passed down to them? Who in the 21st century even has time to do this?
These are very good questions and as the writer drives through the state and sees so many grave sites and family cemeteries grown over, he can’t help but answer, “very few.”
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