TOMBSTONE TALES

By Nowell Briscoe

   

Recently I was gathering information pursuant to the tour of the Old Baptist Cemetery when my files revealed articles from the end of 1996 describing the vandalism that occurred in the cemetery deep in the darkness behind those great rock walls.  I recalled reading the events from the Tribune and was amazed over what would possibly make someone feel the destruction and desecration of gravesites could be considered as “fun” or prank.  The late Walter Cox proclaimed this to be the first cemetery in Monroe and dates back to before the founding of the city or township, to the Revolutionary War, where many of the soldiers who gave their lives in battle now rest in unmarked graves that are scattered about the grounds like acorns that fall aimlessly from a tree. 

          The cemetery is the resting place for some of Monroe’s earliest and most distinguished families.  Elisha Betts, the man who founded and named Monroe, laid his mother to rest among the quiet dignity and beauty of the grounds in 1826, feeling this was the finest place in town to bury her.  He owned a large portion of the land where she was buried and in December 1833 deeded to Monroe another portion of land which surrounded her grave with the instructions that it was never to belong to an individual and should always be used as a burial site.  This tract of land adjoined the land already owned by the Walker  family then known as the “Walker Burying Ground”, with some of the earliest members of the family serving in the Revolutionary War and buried on the property. 

One of the earliest marked graves belonging to the Walker family is that of Rev. John H. Walker, being laid to rest there in 1836.  Many of the soldiers who fought in the war were hastily buried and the graves marked with stones and roughly hewn pieces of wood with the names carved into the wood.  Over the decades, the wood rotted while the stones were moved or scattered erasing any indication that a valiant young man gave his life for his country.

          At the far back left corner of the cemetery are graves that belonged to three families who were connected by marriage to form a unique dynasty in the early beginning of Monroe’s civic and business endeavors, whose lives brought fame and honor to the city.

          One of Monroe’s early pioneer settlers, Waters Briscoe, built the beautiful ante-bellum home on McDaniel Street known as “The Hill”.  A daughter of Waters Briscoe married George Cowan Selman who took over ownership after the death of Waters Briscoe and his wife.  The youngest daughter of George Selman, possibly through an introduction by Edgar S. Tichenor, married a young English professor at Mercer University, Pickney Daniel Pollock, who later became president of the university.  That union produced a son, Daniel Marshall Pollock, who inherited the white columned antebellum home which remained in the family until it was sold in 1977.

          Besides these families, there are other early prominent citizens who helped create the early township of Monroe; doctors, lawyers, ministers, shoemakers, postmasters, city officials and a governor to name a few.

          In 1954 the generosity of  Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Boyd McCrary of Atlanta, gave the cemetery a special gift. The beautiful rock walls and wrought iron gates that enclose the cemetery along with the rock wall structure surrounding the Walker family plot was built in memory of Mrs. McCrary’s parents, Billington Sanders and Alice Mitchell Walker.  Mrs. McCrary was the former Mary Neel Walker.  The stone that formed these enclosures came from the top of Stone Mountain  in late 1953 and designated especially for this purpose.

          Cemeteries serve as havens of rest for the various families whose remains lie under the soil but also as historical resources to understand  how people lived generations before us.  The day of the tour was similar to a page from a Dickens novel; rainy weather and foreboding skies surrounded those who came to pay honor and tribute to those buried hundreds of years ago as we walked under a canopy of oak, magnolia and pine trees, listening as stories and tales of our fore bearers were revealed.  There is still evidence of the damage done from the vandalism back in 1996;  monuments broken and toppled have been restored to some degree, some graves with temporary markers were removed, above the ground tombs cracked and broken all in the name of what…..childish pranks? 

I have a hard time grasping why someone would think desecrating a cemetery would be considered folly. The graves of those whose family still lived in Monroe came forward to help with the restoration of many of the markers but the graves of those whose families are long extinct still reflect some of the acts of the recklessness and damage created in the dark on a cold December night.

          My research for the tour, revealed a poem which perfectly described the cemetery we toured that dreary Sunday.  It only took a minute for me to know the man who penned this poem obviously had been in a cemetery much akin to the one in Monroe and served as a perfect introduction for the tour.  Elden Hayes captured the true essence of a cemetery like the Old Baptist Cemetery when he wrote:

The Old Cemetery

The wind came calling from the west

fortelling of a future rain,

storm clouds from a distant past

reminder of a forgotten pain.

Wings that beat upon a drum

draws us back to long ago,

smoke that carries many prayers

beyond the hidden rainbow.

A forgotten graveyard sits alone

weeping for a better day,

forgiving loved ones rest here

ignoring this disarray.

Markers lay upon the earth

scattered like an unmade bed,

chisled words of comfort

that can no longer be read.

No one worries anymore

about this place that couldn’t last,

once a cemetery fills up

it becomes the forgotten past.