‘We Buried Our Own’
The Workman Cemetery
As a 16-year-old boy, I vividly remember a wake and burial that I attended in eastern Kentucky between Pikeville and Williamson, West Virginia. This was still a very isolated and economically distressed area in the early 1960s.
The deceased was the aunt of a young lady I was dating, or more accurately, I hoed weeds in her daddy’s corn patch. Helen Louise was always hoeing just a row or two away, relentlessly teasing and throwing things at me. I guess that made us an item to some degree.
We rode in the back of a pickup truck to a farm no more than 10 miles away but taking a good hour over rough terrain, arriving at dusk. The truck was parked at the bottom of a hill lined to the top with other trucks. We walked up the hill until we came to a group of somber-faced men smoking and talking quietly, occasionally passing a bottle around.
Helen Louise said to me, “This is where you stay. I am going to the house to help the women with the food.”
I found myself in an awkward position among these older family members until a fellow about my age asked, “You kin?”
I told him that I was just a friend of Helen Louise. After he told me that he was a cousin of Helen he inquired, “You seen my Aunt Tilly yet?”
I told him that I had not, and he motioned for me to follow him.
I followed my new friend through a side door into the large rambling farmhouse. Looking to my left I could see women moving about the kitchen arranging cakes, pies, bowls of hot vegetables, cornbread and large black skillets of fried chicken onto two long tables – there would be food aplenty for the mourners, it would be a long night.
We proceeded to our right, down a long, wide hallway that terminated abruptly at an open coffin. I focused my eyes on the base of the wooden coffin, afraid to look at what was in the coffin.
My fear dissolved when the boy gently took his aunt’s hand in his own and said, “I love you, Aunt Tilly. You will always be my favorite aunt.”
He then slipped a small chain with a locket onto her wrist, saying, “I will never forget you.”
I then took her in fully; my eyes swept from her head down the length of the silken interior of the coffin. I saw wildflowers, photos and mementos left by others grieving the loss of this beloved aunt, sister, wife, mother and grandmother. Her coffin would bear these final gifts The next morning, Matilda’s coffin was carried out of the house and placed in the bed of a pickup truck. Several young men jumped in the bed to keep the coffin from being jostled about as the truck climbed a steep dirt lane that led up to the family cemetery high on a knob.
I later learned that Aunt Tilly’s coffin was built to her specifications several years before she died. The black cherry was cut on her land and the boards fairly shimmered as a testament to the numerous coats of shellac that had been lovingly applied by her younger brother.
The service was simple and short. There was little more to say as the previous evening was solely dedicated to telling stories about Aunt Tilley. Her family laughed and cried throughout the night; they hugged each other and many placed a kiss upon Tilly’s forehead.
The interpretive park sign attached to the Workman Cabin at Watoga State Park states that “births and deaths occurred in the cabin, and family members were buried in the small cemetery atop the ridge.”
We seldom give much thought to what a death actually meant to rural families right up until the middle of the 20th Century.
This is not intended to be a morbid dispatch by any means. Death is a part of life, so to speak. But rather it is to serve as a reminder of what our ancestors regarded as a loving and necessary responsibility when death inevitably knocked on the door.
Modern funeral services by their very nature distance us from the body of the deceased. We no longer wash and prepare the body, or even touch the body in most cases. When a person dies in a hospital or hospice, or when killed in an accident, the deceased rarely ever returns to their home again.
Funeral services became popular, primarily in larger cities, at the height of the immigration of Europeans to the U.S. in the late 1800s. Embalming was practiced by various ancient cultures as far back as 7,000 years. It became popular in the United States during the Civil War as a measure to prevent the decomposition of the hundreds of soldiers dying daily.
The first funeral directors in the U.S. were often local cabinet and furniture makers. Services were generally limited to constructing the casket and, if requested, going to the deceased family’s house to perform embalming. In other words, this necessary but intermittent service was just a sideline.
Funeral homes today offer full-service to the grieving families. The body is removed from the place of death and is transported directly to the funeral home. An exception to this would be if an autopsy is performed for clinical reasons to determine the medical cause of death or for forensic reasons. Once released, the body then goes to the designated funeral home.
The bereaved usually make basic arrangements through the funeral home director on such issues as embalming, burial or cre- mation, selection of a casket, type of service performed and arranging transportation and staff for graveside services. (West Virginia state law does not require embalming; however, it may be a requirement of the funeral home or cemetery.)
Most funeral homes offer a number of other services that range from writing obituaries, providing floral arrangements, accepting donations for named charities, and keeping records on those attending funeral home viewing and memorial services.
The foregoing was not an option for most people living in rural parts of Appalachia until the middle of the last century. The cost of funeral services could be prohibitive for many families. As well, the ritual of “burying our own” was deeply ingrained in the mountain culture.
It would be a safe assumption that the 14 or so burials preceding that of the 1975 interment of Forest Workman in the Workman Cemetery, were handled entirely by the Workman Family.
Based upon historical records and anecdotal family stories passed down through generations, the washing and dressing of the deceased was generally relegated to the women.
Many of these stories tell of a deep sense of tenderness and care in preparing the body for burial – it was, after all, the final intimate demonstration of respect and love afforded to the departed.
Building a coffin and digging a grave was generally the province of the adult men in the family. Here in the mountains, the frozen ground of the winter months could prevent a timely burial. This inevitably meant that the body would have to be stored until such time as the ground thawed out.
Those who passed on in the frigid winter months were often stored in barns, sheds and other unheated areas where they could be protected from animals and remain frozen. Imagine passing by these frozen bodies daily in the course of farm chores.
The grief is only prolonged by the conditions of winter. Another round of grief awaits the spring thaw when the body is finally laid to rest, giving rise to new tears.
The serviceberry tree (Amelanchier arborea), sometimes called ‘sarvusberry’ in Appalachia, blooms early in the spring, about two weeks before the dogwood. An oft-repeated story is that the tree got its name from the fact that the bloom signaled the time when the ground had thawed enough to bury the dead and conduct the funeral “service,” – and the tree also provided the flowers.
It has been stated before in these dispatches that our forefathers must have been made of sterner stuff. You may say that it was just thrust upon them out of necessity, but some aspects of these hardships may have a value that we just simply fail to perceive.
In the next dispatch from Watoga State Park we will examine how one man and his son’s generosity became contagious when it came to honoring those buried in one of Pocahontas County’s many small family cemeteries.
Please stay tuned.
From the mountain trails of Watoga,
Thanks to Doug Lantz, Find A Grave, WV Department of Arts, Culture, and History; and Spade and the Grave.