While it is probably more the exception than the rule for someone to actually have much more than their name and the dates of their birth and death inscribed on their grave markers, still it is intriguing to reflect on what we think others might inscribe there if they were so inclined. Just as interesting is what we would want to put there if it were up to us.
Last summer, as our family visited a number of historical sites on the east coast, some of the most interesting and compelling places we visited were cemeteries and monuments where careful and thoughtful attention was given to remembering and reflecting on the significance of the people and events that were tied to those places. These were created with the anticipation that many people over long periods of time would come and visit these sites, absorb their significance, and in some way go away changed.
However, one of those that spoke to me the most profoundly was one that I suspect was put in place without that kind of anticipation. As far as I know, it is neither well known, nor is it on anyone’s “must see” list.
As part of our trip, we spent a few days with my sister and brother-in-law at their home in Hermitage, Tennessee, a small town just a few miles from Nashville, and near a number of interesting historical sites from the Civil War era.
One afternoon while we were visiting some of these places, my brother-in-law told us that he wanted to take us to see something that we would not likely find mentioned in any of the tourist brochures. Intrigued with what he might have in mind, we traveled with him to a small Confederate cemetery, attached to a old church, and next to where a facility had once stood that served as a kind of retirement home for Confederate soldiers.
In the cemetery there was a large monument to the soldiers buried there. Around it, headstones were arranged in a unique pattern that formed concentric circles, the pattern of which you can see in the picture to the right.
My brother-in-law didn't say much at first, as we stood there, taking it all in. Finally he asked if there was anything about what we were seeing that captured our attention. Maybe it was the intense afternoon heat, but, to be honest, we didn’t notice anything at first. But then, he drew our attention to something that might otherwise have slipped by us. One lone headstone, standing by itself (left side of the picture), clearly outside of the circles.
Our curiosity having now been aroused, we walked over to take a closer look. What we read on the grave marker was a name, Ralph Ledbetter, and then markings that indicated that he was in from the Confederate First Infantry Division from Tennessee and the date of his birth and his death. But what figured most prominently on the headstone, enclosed in parentheses, but as an inscription that was anything but parenthetical, the word “Slave.”
It took a few moments for the significance of what we were seeing to begin to sink in, but as it did, it was literally stunning. A year later it is still sinking in. While the grave maker gave few of the details of this man’s story, what can be surmised from the little we know may be something very close to this:
Here is man who was a slave. At best would have been regarded as beloved property by those he served. Perhaps it was out of a sense of loyalty, or maybe even devotion to those who owned him, that he was willing to set aside an interest in his own freedom to actually fight along side of other confederate soldiers in their cause. It is intriguing to think about what may have motivated him to do as he did. But what I found myself wondering about even more, was not so much what was going on inside of the man who was buried here, as what was going on inside of those who buried him?
As a slave fighting on the side of the Confederacy, (whatever his reasons for doing so may have been), in some very significant ways, the sacrifice he was making was as much, or greater, than any of those around him. Yet, when it came time for him to be buried, his grave stands alone, outside of the circle, and clearly labeled in a manner that makes his status, or lack of status, clear.
What was perhaps most troubling of all, was the date on the grave marker. You could almost understand it, if he had died in battle during the Civil war when some of these issues were still in dispute, but the date of his death is 1939. That's 74 years after the Civil War was over! Despite what had been won, settled and proclaimed, at least in the minds of those who buried him and inscribed his head stone, clearly, some things had still not been fully realized. 74 years later, he is still outside the circle.
It is true that some slaves actually had very warm and close relationships with plantation owners (as appears to have been the case with Andrew Jackson), and whose graves had special places of honor on the estate, even if they were still clearly distinctly apart from other family . . . and some might argue that perhaps the fact that he was allowed to be buried there at all in the same cemetery with other officers may indicate some movement in that direction. Perhaps. But it seems to me, especially 74 years after the fact, that in a nation that declares that all people are created equal, and in a region that is supposed to be known for it’s “southern hospitality” and is considered to be part of “the Bible belt,” this is a rather emaciated kind of recognition at best. It is indeed sad if this represents the best we could do.
I have wondered about Ralph Ledbetter, the way his life was commemorated, and the implications of all of that, a lot since then. What I have wondered about even more are those who buried him. Not his family or friends, if indeed there were any living at the end of his 98 years, but the larger community that helped create and sustain the context in which this kind of statement could be made and accepted. What is it that can become so deeply rooted in us, that almost a whole lifetime later, such blind spots as these can still exist?
A lot of years have passed since 1939 when Ralph Ledbetter was buried. We have come a long way since then in terms of the issues that are reflected in his epitaph, although there is still a ways to go even on that road, even in this country, even yet. But the ripple effects of what is reflected here continue to be felt in many other contexts and with many other issues. What I find myself wondering about in the wake of this are things like:
- Where the blind spots in my own life might be that would allow me to place a lower value or estimate on any person or group of people, that might result in my feeling justified in designating them as deserving less than I would ask for for myself? .
- What the forces in my life might be that would motivate me to make, or feel justified in making, these kinds of judgments about people? Fear? Insecurity? Personal or economic advantage? A perceived threat from what someone thinks or believes? Ignorance? .
- Are there places in my life where I am willing to apply a different set of rules, values, or standards when dealing with some than with others? (On a national level, the question often raised is, do those who are not "us" deserve to be treated as well, with all the same rights and dignity, that we would insist on for ourselves, or do we ignore or own values when it appears to be in our interest to do so?) The question here is, are there ways in which this also can happen on a personal level? .
- What cautions, insights, or bits of wisdom do we find as we reflect on the experience of the early church in places like Acts 10 & 11 where even committed followers of Jesus still struggled with their own cultural and theological issues that had so long resulted in the division of their world between Jews and Gentiles? As we watch the Spirit addressing the issues there, what insights do we get about how the Spirit may be speaking to us today?
I wonder if Ralph Ledbetter ever anticipated the impact he might have?
In case you're interested - to see better pictures of the cemetery referenced above click here