Sunday, December 21, 2008

From China: Fewer People Visit Ancestors' Graves This Year

Apparently it is a Chinese tradition to visit ones' ancestors' graves at the Winter Solstice festival. But the Shanghai Daily's English language online edition reports today (actually it's tomorrow there already) that the numbers of people gathering in cemeteries this year was down slightly from last year. The Daily said that officials attribute the drop (overall about 2% in the Shanghai area) to bad weather as well as suggestions not to visit during peak periods.

The Daily reported that one cemetery, the Binhaiguyuan Cemetery, received just 91,000 visitors yesterday (today here on the U.S. West Coast), which represented a drop of 20% from last year. The Daily said that some families arrived at cemeteries as early as 3:30 a.m. to avoid crowds and traffic.

Chinese visit their ancestors' graves traditionally at the winter solstice and at the Qingming Festival in early April.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grace Hill Cemetery, Longview, Texas

My visit to Grace Hill Cemetery in May, 2004, may have been the inspiration to blog about genealogy and related topics.

I had flown into Shreveport, Louisiana, on a business trip and decided to take a couple more days for genealogy research in the region. I drove about an hour west on I-20 to get to Longview, ancestral home of many in my Bowie line.

I got to Grace Hill Cemetery rather late in the day. I knew it was likely that many of my Bowie relatives were buried there, but at that point I had just one death certificate. It was for my great-great-grandmother, Amanda McCray Bowie.

Grace Hill Cemetery is near the intersection of U.S. Highway 80 (West Marshall Avenue), a major thoroughfare, and McCann Road in Longview.

I got to the cemetery at almost 5:00 p.m. due to circumstances beyond my control. It would be about closing time. I went to the caretaker's office (well, shack, really) and told a man there whose grave I was looking for. Like many cemeteries I have visited, the information age had yet to arrive here and the grave locations were kept on index cards in a small box. The man asked me if I knew Clarence Bowie. I said I knew of him, but didn't know him personally. Then the man said, "How do you know him?"

"Well, he's my cousin!" I told him. "Come on, cuz, let's go find Amanda's grave!" he replied.

We walked toward the eastern portion of the graveyard past a line of trees, and soon came to a row of mostly broken monuments. "There it is," he said pointing. Amanda Bowie's headstone is the largest monument in that row and it rested in the late afternoon shade of the trees. Next to it is the nearly as large headstone of Iba Bowie, one of the daughters of Amanda and John Wesley Bowie. Most of the other headstones were too broken or corroded to read, but the caretaker said that they were all likely Bowie family members in that row.

"Time was," he said,"that black people weren't allowed in this cemetery. Then they (the city) put up a fence and created a colored section. But after that the courts made 'em take down the fence so it would be one integrated cemetery."

"Where was the fence?" I asked naively. "You see this row of trees?" the caretaker asked. We were practically standing under them. "That's where the fence was." And indeed, I could tell that the trees formed a barrier of sorts between two sections of the cemetery. You could pass through this barrier, but it was still a barrier.

As I contemplated the two headstones, I was struck by how large they are. It must have cost the family s small fortune to afford them in the early twentieth century. How did they afford it? Why were Amanda and Iba seemingly singled out for special treatment? The caretaker didn't know the answers to those questions. He had not thought of them in any event.

Barrier tree line visible just behind grave of Iba Bowie.

This was not a rich family. Of the male Bowies I could find buried there, almost all were described as "laborers." The women either stayed at home or were cooks or other sorts of domestic servants. So how did they afford such elaborate monuments? The men's headstones were of the flat sort in the ground and were in terrible condition.

Perhaps the women were almost literally "put on a pedestal," explaining why their monuments are larger and generally better than the men's.

I wonder if this disparate treatment between the men and women relating to gravestones was just a Bowie family thing, or was it a Texas thing?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Graveyard or Landfill?

When a rock and dirt recycling company in Clayton County, Georgia, wanted to expand its operations, the company came across a 311-grave African-American cemetery in the way. What to do?

A situation like this can be grief for all concerned. The families whose loved ones' remains lie in the cemetery are the most obviously affected. But the company, too, acting in good faith is also affected. And the public is affected as well.

In this case, the county commission, acting under Georgia law, has granted a permit to an archeologist to move the graves to a nearby cemetery. The original graveyard had become virtually inaccessible due to development all around it, including Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

This, however, is not an isolated incident. Every year, more historic graveyards are moved or built over. The diligence to prevent this is in the first instance on families and historians. Each state has laws governing the operation of cemeteries. Genealogists and historians would be well-advised to become generally familiar with such laws.

Here at The PGR, we'll from time to time present some of these laws. And we'll have more this week about the Georgia controversy.