- Resting Places
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I grew up in two worlds and remember being aware of that while still a child. The first was my school-year world: September through mid-June in a postwar New Jersey suburb of New York City. The other was my summer world spent with extended family on the semi-rural outskirts of Greensboro, North Carolina, my father’s hometown. The first world seemed ordinary (even then) and, for the most part, orderly: school; pick-up games of whatever sport was in season; occasional trips into “the city”; regular bed-times; packs of us kids biking the recently laid out suburban streets (farmland less than a decade earlier); church on Sundays. The second, though, seemed out of the ordinary: no school; no sports (not enough of us to make teams); several male cousins my age to roam woods, streams, and fields with (all of them living along the same mile-long stretch of Yanceyville Road that had once been part of our great-grandparents’ farm); lunch-time sandwiches at whatever aunt’s house we happened to be closest to when we got hungry; sometimes fishing or skimming rocks in Uncle Joe’s pond; occasionally shooting bb-guns at birds (we rarely hit one); and no schedule, except for church on Sundays. For my cousins, this was more or less ordinary life, at least during the school-free summer months. For me, though, it was out of the ordinary—extraordinary—and not least because a slightly different version came around every summer (and had come around every summer since before I had memory). Those summers in North Carolina, starting before my first birthday in the late 1940s and continuing until about 1960, were part of who I was throughout my childhood and part of who I have become as an adult.
Among the lasting memories from that time and place are the many visits my cousins and I made to a nearby cemetery. It was about a mile away, an easy bike ride, and was attached to the Buffalo Creek Presbyterian [End Page 205] Church, founded before the Revolutionary War by a group of early settlers that included a number of our ancestors. The oldest part of the cemetery was a wild place: overgrown with tangled bushes and small trees, some of the tombstones broken, others leaning crazily a-kilter. I knew I was supposed to think it spooky, but I never felt spooked. Many of the surnames on the stones were our own—Wharton, McKnight, Rankin, Thompson. That seemed significant but somehow not surprising. We played the games boys play there: hide ‘n seek, tag, various forms of “war.” Once in a while, we took a lunch one of my aunts had packed for us and had a picnic.
My last childhood visit to the cemetery was in the late 1950s. I was getting close to my teens by that point and had lost interest in the cemetery. I didn’t return until sometime in the late 1980s, when I took my own children there for a visit. I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find it cleaned up—no more wild vegetation, no more broken or leaning tombstones, the grass golf-course green and lush, many of the tombstones lying flat for easy mowing. I didn’t return again until 2008, and again in 2013, when my parents’ ashes were buried there, marked by small flat stones close to my father’s ancestors’ graves.
And now, more than fifty years after my last childhood visit to the Buffalo Creek cemetery, I find myself photographing graveyards all over the South. The pictures of cemeteries are not ends in themselves. Instead, they are part of a larger photographic effort that focuses on small-town and rural Southern life—most particularly issues of community, family, and spirituality, as well as how such issues impact the physical world Southerners live in. But even though making photographs of rural burial grounds is a relatively small part of...