A small monument stands roadside along my patrol route. Curious, I stopped to check it out one day a while back and read the inscription on it.
It immediately piqued my interest on a number of levels. One of my hobbies is poking around old cemeteries. As an avid student of history, they’re some of the most interesting and amazing places to visit. Not only that, but there’s something very interesting about this particular type of cemetery. Commonly called “Potter’s Fields” they are burial places for people who died without family or were very poor. For the most part, the graves are marked with only simple numbered stones, the names of the interred are matched only with paper records somewhere in a file that often gets lost to history. Often, the grave sites are unmarked completely. I’d visited one such place in Long Island a number of years ago, but didn’t know there was one so close. I made up my mind I had to check it out.
I made a few inquiries, and one of the other officers told me “Yeah, there’s a path behind that monument, the cemetery is back up in the woods a ways. There isn’t much left of it.”
Tonight, while working alone and having completed my assigned duties for the night, I made up my mind to see if I could find it. Around 2:30am I pulled up and parked near the monument, clicked on my flashlight and headed towards the treeline, looking for an opening that might be a path.
I found it not far from where I’d parked, and my flashlight beam played up the path, immediately stopping on the glowing eyes of a barn cat. I followed the path to an opening, a mowed field about a hundred yards from where I’d parked. My flashlight searched for the cemetery, finding nothing at all. The field I stood in had been freshly cut. It appeared I’d wandered into someone’s hay field. I was in the wrong place. There was nothing that even looked like a cemetery. As I walked a little way into the field, my light rested on a wire fence a few yards away- the type commonly used to keep livestock from wandering off. Next to one of the thin metal fence posts, a squared-off object sat. A box? No. It was a rock. As I got closer, I realized I’d found it. Sort of. The simple tombstone sticking up out of the grass was the only one of its kind. Etched into its face was the number that had been assigned to a soul for the rest of eternity. 84.
I looked closer at the ground around me and found the remnants of maybe half a dozen other stones either broken off near ground level or laying flat in the grass. #84 was the only obvious indication that there was or had been a cemetery there. I also noticed that the ground around #84 was humped and divoted in places, much the same way I’d seen on Civil War battlefields where trenches and rifle pits had been dug, but the earth had done a fairly decent job of repairing itself. Truth be told, if I hadn’t known what I was looking for at the start, I’d have probably never realized that this was a burial ground. Even though the last burial in this commoner’s cemetery was around sixty years ago, it had all but been reclaimed by the earth.
There wasn’t much else to see, so I started back through the woods, pondering the history of the place. A peaceful hillside in Rural New York isn’t such a bad place to spend eternity, unknown, unmarked, or otherwise, but I couldn’t help but wonder who #84 was. Perhaps one of the 5 WW1 veterans buried there? Even if I take the time to dig into the archives of the county and they HAPPEN to have the records corresponding to the numbers somewhere, odds are it’ll yield nothing more than a name. An entire life reduced to a number which is quickly fading away like several hundred other numbers already had.
My first reaction to such places is always a little sad. But the more I dwell on it, there’s a sort of comforting finality to it. The whole “dust to dust” thing really makes a little bit of sense. Not only that, but nature will ALWAYS take back what was hers to begin with. Even the large national memorial cemeteries will someday long into the future wither away under the elements and the treelines will creep back to where a field had been plotted, and I really like the idea of ‘returning from whence we came.’
Not only that, but I always feel a bit fortunate when I happen across a place like this. I somehow get the idea that I’m going to be one of the last people to see it as it was, before it is swallowed back by the elements. Such places are simultaneously a glimpse into the past, and a look at the future.
I got back to the car after having the daylights scared out of me by a deer that I startled along the pathway, and drove off.
I’ll probably never go back and see #84 and the collection of scattered, broken stones that are sinking back into the dirt and grass again. But I did get there, and I did get a chance to see it before the whole site is nothing more than a memory, referenced by a memorial on the side of the road that scarcely draws a glance from most who pass by. For that, I think I am fortunate…strange though that may seem.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a LITTLE chuckle out of the irony of working the graveyard shift tonight.