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Reflections Following Memorial Day

May 26, 2008

The most expensive real estate in Spartanburg County rarely changes hands once the property is occupied.  These small tracts of land are, of course, cemetery plots.  A friend of mine, now living in Texas, used to work for a local cemetery.  I often teased that he ran his business into the ground.  Just after Easter, fifteen or more years ago, he made me an offer too good to refuse.  The cemetery was planning to open a new section.  “We’re running a special for a limited time only,” he said.  “I’ll sell you two cemetery plots for the price of one.”

I talked with my dad, who always has an eye for a good deal.  Each of us purchased two plots in undeveloped acreage covered with bramble briars and poison ivy.

Several years later, my friend called again.  “We have exhumed a body that is to be reburied in Tennessee.  Four adjoining cemetery lots are available near the graves of your grandfather and grandmother.  If you and your dad would like to have them, we will swap even.”

Occasionally this real estate does change hands.  Dad and I agreed to accept the offer.  Mama had qualms about being buried in a previously occupied plot, so Dad and I decided that she and Clare could have the new ground and one of us would gladly accept the used grave for our final resting place.  The story may sound strange, even irreverent, to some. We often have irrational ideas about cemeteries.

Two observations strike me as both odd and appropriate.  First, numerous pedestrians walk in cemeteries every day.  A graveyard is certainly a peaceful, safe place to exercise.  Striding past the resting places of the deceased provides motivation to walk more briskly.

Second, some student drivers use the narrow cemetery roadways to master the skill of maneuvering an automobile.  While negotiating the pavement through a graveyard will hardly prepare a teenager for interstate driving, it is a relatively safe place to begin.  The setting is a grim reminder that driving can be hazardous.

Memorial Day is a time to visit a cemetery. It is a holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates United States citizens who have died in military service to our country. It was instituted to honor Union soldiers who perished during the Civil War. Following World War I, it was expanded to include those who died in any war or military action.

Those Southern states that were members of the old Confederate States of America set aside several different dates to observe Confederate Memorial Day. Both North and South Carolina designated May 10 as a day to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers. May 10 was chosen because on that date in 1863 General Stonewall Jackson died and on the same date in 1865 Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was captured.

When I was a boy growing up in Spartanburg, the Confederate Memorial was downtown. The monument has since been moved to a location in front of the American Legion building in Duncan Park. Now, the old date and the relocated granite obelisk receive little notice.

This year, I notice that small American flags decorate the graves of many of the dearly departed, not only veterans, but also ordinary citizens.

Just past Mary Black Hospital, about where Skylyn Drive becomes Cannons Camp Ground Road, two cemeteries are located; Sunset Memorial Gardens on the right and Lincoln Memorial Gardens on the left.  In my twenty-eight years as a minister in Spartanburg, I have led many funerals at Sunset. Never have I been invited to conduct a funeral at Lincoln.

These two cemeteries reflect the past segregation of this community along racial lines.  While the two tracts of land are in close proximity to each other, they remind us of a time when schools, lunch counters, restrooms, and water fountains were sites of discrimination.

On a sunny afternoon, I drove into Lincoln Memorial Gardens and walked among the markers, reading the names and dates of birth and death of those buried there.  I noticed that some were born soon after the Civil War, and I tried to imagine the obstacles to freedom they encountered.  The tombstones in that cemetery look exactly like the granite markers of my deceased loved ones.

The back road of the Lincoln cemetery borders the Spartanburg Police Hunt Club.  Near that road is a large marble image of Christ with his hands outstretched.  Parts of the statue have been discolored, or maybe I should say colored, by time and the elements.  Beneath this Christ of color is an engraved scripture: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord…that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

As the children’s song puts it, “Red, yellow, black, and white, they are precious in His sight.”

My Memorial Day reflection this year is that every life is important. In death, our categories -North and South, black and white, veteran and civilian – simply do not matter.  My prayer this Memorial Day is that prejudice and discrimination will pass away and be laid to rest, not only in death, but also in our life together this side of heaven.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, May 2008

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