On a recent trip to New Bern, NC, I had the opportunity to spend about an hour wandering through the forest of headstones in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, one of the oldest in all of North Carolina. While many people are spooked or uncomfortable in cemeteries, I am captivated by the history, the sense wonder and the peace and spirituality they offer me. I do not spend a lot of time in church, preferring to find my “god” in the mountains, the trees, the winds and yes, even in the cemeteries of the world.
I guess some might call it macabre, but I find myself very much at peace walking among the interred. Simple, meditative thoughts come easily to me as I meander past the headstones of past lives, bygone eras. Of course I walk, I read and I wonder, but I often just sit, eyes closed and listen to the serenity that envelops me. While I have never been sure about heaven or even an afterlife, I am confident that our spirits do carry on, at the very least in those we have touched by our existence. At Cedar Grove, I am not surrounded by ghosts and goblins but rather by gentle warmth spawned by the essence of souls I never knew.
The cemetery was founded in 1800 as the Episcopal Cemetery after a 1798 yellow fever outbreak congested the burial grounds at Christ Episcopal Church in the heart of New Bern. It was renamed Cedar Grove in 1853 after ownership transferred to the City where it remains today. In 1854, a marl (or shell stone) wall was added to keep animals at bay and the beautiful Weeping Arch was constructed of the same material as the primary entry point. The arch is so named because marl retains considerable moisture and releases it at any time, much like the weeping willow tree. As you can imagine any unexpected moisture, especially rust colored droplets, at the entry of a historic grave site can be a little unsettling and provides the impetuous for many a haunting story. The Weeping Arch was dedicated by Dr. Francis Lister Hawks with these words, “Still hallowed be this spot where lies, Each dear loved one in earth’s embrace, Our God their treasured dust doth prize, Man should protect their resting place.”
Between 1878 and 1885 a confederate memorial was constructed over a crypt containing the remains of seventy Confederate soldiers who lost their lives in the 1862 Battle of Newbern. There are many small markers scattered throughout the grounds with only one or a few initials followed by the letters C.S.A., Confederate States of America.
How can I not sit for a moment to contemplate the battle, the war, and the spirits of those lost in the conflict that so divided our young country. There are fresh confederate flags, placed like flowers at a number of these markers… a sign of respect or perhaps a reminder that we still have a ways to go to become a nation of equals? As I rise from these thoughts, I suspect a little truth in both.
There are the famous buried here, the forebearers and patrons of Newbern’s past. The first school master of the New Bern Academy (1764), Thomas Tomlinson and Peter Custis, co-leader of the Freeman and Custis expedition commissioned to explore the American Southwest in 1806 were both laid to their final rest in Cedar Grove. So too were the inventor of Pepsi-Cola (or “Brad’s Drink” as it was originally known), Caleb Bradham and Robert Ransom, a graduate of West Point in 1850 who resigned from the army to serve as the commanding officer of the 1st North Carolina Cavalry, Confederate States of America. Ransom was later promoted to General and fought at Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg and Richmond. I think again about how Ransom’s war and all wars change perspective, change lives.
There are scores more of the illustrious, the elite and the historic resting here. Many of the graves are marked and a legend can be found near the arch to guide you to your objective if it is the famous you seek. I am more comfortable with the lesser known and the unknown. I spend time wondering in front of a few blank stones, washed clean by the winds and the rains of time. These are the true unknowns. Do their descendants know where they are or that they ever existed? I meditate in front of a few small graves, the young that passed after only a few years or perhaps months and reflect on my good fortune of being blessed with two healthy, content and loving adult daughters. I read the testaments, memorials and prayers of mothers, fathers and children all paying homage to those who were closest to them. I feel and understand their love, their compassion and their loss. I have been there and understand that I will be again… it is the circle. I am mesmerized by the markings of time; born 1765 and died 1844, born 1775 and died 1821. I am with the remains and the collective spirit of some who were present for the founding of our nation. Thought, wonder and reflection come easily here.
Cedar Grove has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, but it is also now in disrepair. The grasses are a little too high, the weeds unattended and many of the monuments marred by weather, vandals and time. The low retaining walls of the family plots teeter and the paths I walk are unevenly worn by those who have trodden before me. But as with most things, there is beauty in this decay, in this collection of loved ones, the known and the unknown. The City and its people are looking to restore, but for now and for me, it still provides ample refuge for my thoughts and from the world outside those weeping walls.
I sit again for some minutes in front of a small grave marked “Katie Chapman Davis, Born May 12, 1854, Died March 8th, 1855, aged 9 months and 26 days – Suffer little Children to come unto me and forbid them not for of such is the Kingdom of God.” The sun is warm, passing through the trees onto my back, the wind is whispering through me and as I rise for the last time at Cedar Grove and exit the massive iron gates, a little “peace” of Katie follows me.