By Cynthia D. Ellis
My fellow hikers and I trudged uphill, through a hollow. We were in the Kanawha City section of Charleston for a trail club outing in the 60 acre Wallace-Hartman Preserve. Fellow hikers said there was a Dunlap cemetery at the edge. Dunlap is my maiden name and Daddy’s home place was not too far away. After about 2 miles we came alongside a municipal landfill, with its artificial knolls and hillocks covered over and with methane collecting apparatus. Nearby was a small clearing with a few new headstones and a sprinkling of old ones. The graves faced east, in the traditional way, to be ready for the second coming.
None of the names were any I recognized from what I know of that side of the family. But they were intriguing still. One showed, “Sultanna Dunlap, 1864-1947,” — she lived from war to war. For me, as for many, there is this upwelling of interest in the older generations as we become older ourselves. We wonder how their chapters ended as we pass through the middle ones of our own.
It doesn’t even matter that “my” family cemetery was near a landfill. I have been able to visit a number of old family graves. Two lie alongside highways near Buckhannon, where cars and trucks thunder by. Two more are in sight of Interstate 79. Another burying ground has been enveloped by a country club, where greatgrandparents never heard of such a thing. Now the thunk-splat of tennis balls and the lights of the court are adjacent to the graves. Grandma Dunlap’s grave is near quieter Kanawha Terrace. She had eleven children; one infant died. She had the little bones moved from the home place grave on Davis Creek to a place next to her final one. At any rate, nearly all our family plots have somewhat less-than-peaceful setting.
I was lucky enough to know all four of my grandparents. There are some family pictures and other records. I can imagine the lives of those who came before. In Appalachia, many of us cherish memories and locations.
So we have a special tenderness for any who wish to honor the past and are hindered in that desire.
The recent eviction of families at the coal town of Rita, in Logan County, made me think of my good fortune to be able to see old cemeteries, and of the grief for some regional families who can no longer do that. How sad—to have your family cemetery isolated, locked off, or “relocated.” Sadly too, a number of mountain people, such as Larry Gibson and Dustin White, called “heroes” by some, have had to fight to try to save their graveyards. Legislation enacted in 2010 increased family access to cemetery sites, but extractive activities may still occur within 100 feet of the graves. We, in WVHC, have tried to help and will continue.
Nowadays people look to new traditions. There may be cremated ashes or no engraved stone to sit upon or conteAmplate. There may be a “Green Burial,” which would preserve the feeling of a location with a special connection to a loved one.
Today, some of us are very fortunate. There are those new choices, but also, although highways, landfills, and golf courses may intrude, we can still visit a grave—and remember. Our ties to family history have not been blasted, bulldozed, or drilled away.
Here’s one last thought— because Larry Gibson and I were about the same height, I could look him in the eye. But I will never match his stature when it comes to opening the eyes, minds, and hearts of people toward saving cemeteries.and mountains.