When I Am Gone, 2011
I will go blocks out of my way to avoid a traffic light, or miles out of my way to avoid potential heavy traffic, but the truth of it is take shortcuts because I see really neat things on back streets and less-traveled roads.
I took a shortcut over Library Hill in Carnegie, passing by Ross Colonial Cemetery, named so for the Ross family of settlers around the time of the Revolutionary War and it contains graves and headstones that date from that time as well as more recent ones. I pass this tiny cemetery all the time, and have read or taken rubbings of all the weathered markers.
But in addition to this being a family cemetery, this very spot at the top of a cliff over an oxbow in Chartiers Creek where it winds through Carnegie was a lookout for millennia, for all the people who lived in the area or passed through. My mother told me her brothers and others found arrowheads and even older artifacts in the soil. I can feel history under my feet as I stand, and voices in the wind brushing past me to other eras.
So it was that I passed it on a starkly sunny November day and saw this stone leaning against a tree trunk. I knew I’d never seen it before—I would certainly have noticed a stone tablet with writing on it leaning against a tree. Errand be damned, I went around the block, parked and went to investigate.
I could see another portion of a stone nearby which looked fairly smooth but with a trace of writing which matched the angled dark area on the stone leaning against the tree. Under that portion of stone on the ground I also saw a rectangular patch of rather bare earth with grass pulled up around the edges. This stone, thin and fragile, had broken and laid in two pieces in that spot for perhaps years, until the trough grass and native ground cover grew completely over it. The portion of the stone against the tree had been preserved by the section which had lain on top of it; that section had been worn nearly smooth, and no amount of rubbing with tissue and pencil, charcoal or anything brought the text forward.
Even on the preserved stone the text was nearly impossible to read. I picked out a few lines, did a rubbing to get a few more, but decided to forgo the ancient magic of pencil rubbings for the modern magic of PhotoShop, making sure I had several good images in which I could adjust contrast and color.
At home, using both the rubbings and photo, I searched for one fragment after another until I found a portion of the book on Google books, but the text had been digitized without proofreading and page numbers and line markers were mixed in with text, which frequently had odd letters as if the optical character reader didn’t recognize the letter in that place. However, from that, I found the name of the book in which the piece appeared:
Revival and Camp Meeting Minstrel.
containing the best hymns and spiritual songs, original and selected.
I searched for that title and found a listing for it in the New York Public Library, and saw that it also had a page on OpenLibrary.org
And there it was: published in Philadelphia: Perkinpine & Higgins, 56 N. Fourth Street. “C. 1867” was handwritten under the publisher’s address. On the copyright page a stamp showed it had been entered into the collection at the New York Public Library in 1939 and that it had indeed been entered into the Library of Congress in 1867.
The purpose of the book was to collect hymns “such as are not found in the Church Hymn Book—the compilers being careful to give those which are more desirable for social and prayer-meetings.”
And, finally, the lyrics to the song which I hoped might tell me something about the person whose resting place had been guarded by this stone.
[Song number 399, beginning on page 387]
MY Christian friends, weep not for me,
When I am gone ;
And when my lowly grave you see.
Oh, do not mourn ;
But praise the Lord, I’m freed from pain
And life’s rough storm ;
And pray that we may meet again
When I am gone.
2 Plant ye some wild-flowers on my tomb,
When I am gone ;
That they may there in silence bloom,
O’er your loved one ;
Entwine a chaplet round my head,
And often come
And view where sleep the early dead,
When I am gone.
3 And oft, my friends, in after years,
When I am gone,
When memory opes the fount of tears,
Sing ye this song ;
And know that though I mouldering lie,
‘Twill not be long
Till we shall meet in yonder sky,
When I am gone.
In all of this I found no name, no date, no age or cause of death or other indication of who this might have been. I pictured a young person, a single man—a woman would have been buried with either her parents or her husband—possibly a Civil War veteran, this being only two years after the cessation of hostilities.
Perhaps some day I’ll pursue the records of this little cemetery and find out more about this person and others buried here. For now I prefer visiting them as if I’m walking through their neighborhood, a glance, a nod, a polite comment or simply a smile, then the assurance of their privacy.