As a child, I loved going to Roseland Park cemetery to feed the ducks. If you’re unfamiliar, Roseland Park Cemetery is located off West Seventh Street in Hattiesburg, next to the former Hercules factory. It featured a small duck pond which I loved to visit. Feeding the ducks was one of my fondest childhood memories. Unfortunately on my last trip to Roseland Park I found the duck pond heavily overgrown and the water barely visible. The general condition of the cemetery had deteriorated. I think it’s unfortunate because cemeteries are important places.
I understand that for some people, visiting cemeteries is a heartbreaking destination, but for me, visiting cemeteries is about finding peace and appreciating history. I have never felt the emotional heaviness that some people describe about a cemetery. Instead, I find cemeteries a place of conscious retrospection. I feel a connection with the person whose name is etched in the granite. Memories of conversations and good times shared immediately spring to mind.
Most tombstones have names and dates engraved on them, but many of them also carry feelings about what the deceased believed or appreciated. Some tombstones have dates of marriage or military service; some have Bible verses, poems, Christian crosses, Jewish stars of David or Masonic images engraved on them. Old gravestones are my favorite; they often include statutes of lambs, angels, tree trunks or fingers pointing to the sky. Names, dates and relationships generate so many questions. How did these people get married? How did parents experience the loss of so many children? What terrible disease caused the death of young people so early? What was it like to live in those days?
Cemeteries are precious to our collective local history. The best-known local historic cemetery is the Oaklawn Cemetery in downtown Hattiesburg. If you walk through the cemetery you can find the graves of Timber Baron / Mayor of Hattiesburg WSF 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 two years old when she died of diphtheria in 1904.
One of my favorite cemeteries in Mississippi is a rural church cemetery in the community of Church Hill, off of Hwy 553 in Jefferson County. This region of Mississippi was colonized by English loyalists who were mostly refugees from the American Revolution. The cemetery has tombstones dating from the early 1800s, as well as a few modern stones. The on-site church is Christ Church Episcopal. The church building is both austere and magnificent – bearing a strong resemblance to an English county church. I noticed that the doors were unlocked during my visit. This allowed visitors to enter to pray, meditate, or just admire the sunlight that shone through the magnificent stained glass windows. The church and cemetery was one of Mississippi author Eudora Welty’s favorite places to visit. She was known to take photographs of tombstones and kept a collection of them.
Perhaps the best-known cemetery in Mississippi is the City of Natchez Cemetery. It houses 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 graves. Legend has it that the angel seems to turn around when you pass. Several times I have walked and driven by angel status, but I never perceived it when I turned to me. Obviously, some people have a different experience with the angel.
For most of my life, I had no idea of the final resting places of the older generations in my family, but thanks to the power of findagrave.com, I found family graves dating back to the early 1800s. The oldest family grave that I have been able to visit is that of my 5th great-grandfather, who moved from South Carolina to Mississippi Territory after the annex of 1812. As we share DNA and a last name, I wonder how different his life must be. were mine.
Cemeteries are a good place to take a break and reflect on life and history. Life is full of contradictions. No place is truer than a cemetery. It is a place dedicated to the memory of the deceased, but cemeteries are a place for the living.
Keith Ball is a local lawyer and longtime resident of the Friendly Town.