Wednesday, October 29, 2014

No Longer Speaking

Yesterday, in her blog, Genealogy à la carte, Gail Dever shared a press release she had recently received. From, it commemorated the crowdsourced website’s milestone of having uploaded one million headstone photographs.

While one million may seem like an immense number, when you extrapolate that number over the span of the worldwide task before us, you realize this is just a small fraction of what still needs to be done. Yet it is a worthy accomplishment.

In describing their mission, noted,
[I]t is becoming harder—if not impossible—to read the inscriptions these stones originally contained. By archiving the images and transcriptions, these important records are saved.

That thought—of the disappearance of once-readable headstone inscriptions—was not lost upon me when our family walked the graveyards of our ancestral heritage in Ireland this month. We snapped what photos we could of legible monuments, but stood, wondering, in front of mute reminder of that fact. Could that blank slate have once been the headstone commemorating our ancestor? Unless someone transcribed any record of those vanished inscriptions from a prior century, we’ll have no way to know.

headstones at the Castletown Conyers cemetery in the Catholic parish of Ballyagran in County Limerick

The ravages of time are not the only challenges facing these engraved records—whether in Canada or Ireland. Add vandals to that list—yes, even in a country like Ireland which boasts a relatively low crime rate—and the deterioration is accelerated. When I queried various online forums about the Castletown graveyard in County Limerick, someone shared a link to a 2011 article in the Limerick Leader concerning the “absolutely appalling state” of the Conyers family tomb there in which the human remains contained within two coffins had been scattered about the premises. The newspaper was reporting on the complaint made to the County Council by the witness to the desecration.

Standing, this month, with my husband in that quiet Irish graveyard—so far from any noise of traffic or neighborhood—it was hard to imagine such mistreatment happening in this bucolic location. Apparently, though, vandals know no limitations of borders.

The ruins of the churchyard confessed to us the ambience of the kindler, gentler ravages of time—only Time, which inevitably would sweep over all and make even the clearest announcements eventually mumble with weathered undulations.

Headstones at the Castletown Conyers cemetery in Catholic parish Ballyagran in County Limerick

The realization only galvanizes my resolve to bolster the cause of those dedicated to preserving these messages. "Etched in stone" may sound like a permanent solution, but even something as innocuous as drips of water leave their mark. I think of books I’ve seen in collections like the Allen County Public Library, where forward-thinking researchers from seventy or a hundred years ago went out and transcribed what records could be found in local cemeteries. I’m thankful for such projects. Now, those details copied onto paper are sometimes the only records left, when the stones that bore the originals have failed us.

Leaving the Castletown graveyard and the ruins of the Catholic Church once standing in its center was, for me, a melancholy parting. I couldn’t help think of those jagged shards of rock, barely clearing the ground, but obviously announcing that someone was buried in that spot. Could that have been our ancestor? Unless someone preserved that record on paper in a yet-undiscovered book, we’ll never know.

Headstones in the cemetery at Castletown Conyers in Catholic parish Ballyagran in County Limerick

Photographs, above, piece together a panorama of the headstones found within the ruins of the Catholic church once standing at the Castletown-Conyers graveyard in County Limerick, Ireland; photographs courtesy Chris Stevens.


  1. I wonder just how much "permanence" one might reasonable wish for with gravestones (and graves for that matter). Eternity and Forever are a long time - and some people - if we are blunt - aren't all that memorable - what will happen when there are billions of folks to be buried? Where will they be put? I've heard of strange cemeteries where folks are buried 5-6 people deep in a plot - the "last person" in will be pushed downward every hundred years - which by then, surely no living family member actually has a direct personal memory of them?

    Some family members are only links in the DNA chain - and not "revered" or "treasured" by anyone living. If the person was "treasured" and "remembered" surely one would visit their grave and make sure of its upkeep?

    1. I don't mean to go all romantic about the notion, Iggy, and there certainly is a strong dose of reality in what you are saying--that is why many cultures opt for use of ossuaries instead of our Western tradition of utilizing cemeteries and eventually-crumbling headstone memorials--but I beg to differ with you on the account of remembering, or even treasuring our ancestors. I think the rising fascination with genealogy itself is a testimony of the increased interest people have in discovering more about those unknown ancestors.

      Agreed, not all of those ancestors we dreamily wish to treasure really deserved the pedestal. Some may have been crotchety jerks, especially in their dotage. Still, as I've learned from witnessing the eulogy of many near-strangers in funerals I've attended out of courtesy for the living, at the end of their life, we would be hard-pressed to not find something nice to say about even the most un-lovable "dearly" departed.

      I guess I see honoring our fathers and mothers as a way to find something positive to say about those who went before--especially if we've never walked in their shoes--even if I've never had any direct personal memory of them. For that matter, I otherwise would never even be able to say anything about my own paternal grandparents; they were gone before I was born. On the other end of the spectrum, I still vividly remember stories from my mother's side of the family, recounting specific details of the lives of our ancestors going back to my third great-grandfather, making me part of a nearly-two-hundred-year-long chain of passing down that direct personal memory to a generation that never met those distant ancestors. Yet, in my mind, their memory still lives on--even if I live too far away to place flowers on their grave.

      I think it all comes down to an inscription I found on the headstone of a man buried in the 1700s: "Here lyeth the body of..." While everyone believes differently, the way I see it is not much different than that inscription. For me, that person isn't really there--not that eternal part, anyway. And yet, that is where we choose to commemorate that life in a permanent way. That that "permanent" marker will someday deteriorate, just as the remains it marks has done, is beside the point. What is important is that we have chosen, in our own feeble way, to remember.

  2. For me, to stand at the foot of a marker of someone I have only read about is a solemn and sacred experience. I know they are not there and yet I feel closer to them for having been there. think there is something about seeing some evidence of that person's life with our own eyes, even if it is just the marker of where they were laid after their death. It makes them more real and I feel a reverence about the location.

    1. I have always been a "hands on" person, Michelle, and perhaps that is why it means so much to have that tangible experience of actually being there. There did seem to be a holy hush about the place. Whether we carry that impression with us into such surroundings, I don't know. But it was an experience I'm glad we were able to partake of.


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