What Do You Want On Your Tombstone?

We just built a new deck. And by “we”, I mean John. In the two years we’ve owned this house, he’s tackled a few major projects and a myriad of small ones: gutting and rebuilding the kitchen, ripping down the deck and building a new one, painting, caulking, sanding, staining. Can you tell we bought a fixer-upper?

So when he ripped out the old, putrid, splinterific painted-barn-red-twenty-years-ago deck, we found a number of interesting items that told us a lot about previous owners, about whom we already know more than we’d like. For example, they liked Charles Chips. I’m guessing you have to be pretty addicted to potato chips to actually subscribe to a delivery service for them. Also, they must have been down to about 2 forks because there were approximately 18 different eating utensils under there. No knives, that I saw, just forks. Combs, plastic jewelry, ancient McDonald’s cups, a tombstone, a Coke bottle, stuff like that.

At this point you might be thinking, “I can’t believe that! Did you say you found a Charles Chips container? I haven’t seen one of those in years!”

Oh, and also? We found a tombstone.

The strange thing is, John found it where we had left some previously covered ground uncovered due to the design of the new deck. Up until last weekend, we had been piling old decking in this spot, brought that to the dump, then all that was left was sand, a few cement pilings, and a cement slab.

Only the cement slab had someone’s name and their date of death, the latter being in 1860.

When presented with something totally unexpected, it’s funny to think back later on what your first impressions were.

My first impression was, “Oh. My. God. I knew they were strange, but I thought they’d only buried a few cats under trees before they moved, not actual people.”

Then of course, I started thinking rationally and realized, no, they weren’t such bad people. Obviously they didn’t bury someone here because the house is only 65 years old; they just stole someone’s 150-year-old gravestone, and the first place they thought to stow it was under their deck, probably recently built at that point, for some future mischief later.

Aside from the fact that it’s illegal and about one of the most disrespectful things you can do, what the heck is so cool about stealing a tombstone? Did they put it in a circle and toast to the person’s memory with a few cans of Schlitz? Somehow I doubt that. I hope this falls under the category of Things That Seem Like a Good Idea When You’re Drunk, and not, Items I Need For My Blossoming Voo-Doo Practice. No excuse, I grant you, but I’ve stolen a few things in my partying days. Not necessarily permanent markers of a temporary life. More of the wedding favor, street sign, passed-out-drunk person’s clothes variety. Harmless mischief, not Have-You-No-Heart Misdemeanor.

But it got me thinking, as finding a tombstone in your yard has a tendency to do. John did a search on the name, and thanks to the miracle of the internet, in about 90 seconds he found the burial plot, several towns over, right down to the specific location in the cemetery. As it turns out, it was not the tombstone of the guy whose name was on it. We assumed a big chunk of it had broken off over time, and the top of it originally said, “Eliza A., Wife Of,” and then her husband’s name, and her date of death. Then it says, “30 years Old.” I know this was a century and a half ago, but how sad is that? This woman died at 30 years old. In the scheme of things not as young in those days as today, but still a young woman. It didn’t say whether or not she had children, but even if she didn’t, here’s a woman in the prime of life, partying like it’s 1860, with a lot to live for, during a tumultuous time in our nation’s history. There’s a Civil War, an assassination, and an end to slavery ahead. Behind Eliza, there was all manner of disease, pestilence, a Revolutionary War, and the first time cranberry sauce from a can was paired with turkey and found to be an irresistible combination.

We thought about researching her and her descendants. I pictured many hours holed up in some dusty basement-level records room at our state’s historical society, calling family members who are still alive, trying to see if anyone has any of Eliza’s old letters, photos, or potato chip containers.

Then, our octogenarian neighbor set us straight.

It seems that the man who lived here 30 years ago (now in his 90s or possibly ceasing to age—she didn’t know) had a grandfather and great-grandfather who were in the tombstone business. Their office had a ton of reject tombstones, dates or names wrong, stuff like that. So the previous owner did what anyone else would do who had access to such a treasure trove.

He made a patio out of them.

How’s that for a conversation piece? “Hey George, I’m headed out to the patio for a beer. Meet me between Henry O. Smith, 1890-1925, and Jane J. Jones, 1872-1937.” It would’ve been like our own little Hollywood Walk of Fame, but without all the stars’ hand- and footprints.

At least Eliza’s final resting place and memorial is still intact, as far as we know. I so don’t need a 19th century ghost looking for a place to call home. We just don’t have the space.

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