Such a lush green covers Platte County for the upcoming Memorial Day on Monday, May 28, thanks to rains and unusual warmth. This following a long, cold winter that lingered into spring with snows falling on April weekends. My, how the seasons do turn so sharply sometimes, nature transforms the landscape so drastically when conditions are right.
Memorial Day reminds us that life can linger or turn sharply. But the stories written on marble and limestone in the old cemeteries don’t seem sad if you walk among them in May, especially in the quiet of evening. Poems are found among the stones.
“The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.”
Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, was born in the years after the Civil War. You can walk through the old Platte County cemeteries and find markers bearing witness to those who fought in that war. I walked through the Platte City Cemetery on Monday. What a high ridge it is on, and so close to the Platte River. At the highest point, you can almost be looking downward at the top of the Platte County Courthouse. They are buried beyond earthly floods and at the town’s closest point to heaven.
Those who created this holiday were divided in their loyalties and opinions, much as we are today. Maybe we need Memorial Day to remind us how life goes on despite strife.
Dr. E. McDowell Coffey had the Confederate stars and bars etched on his large marble tombstone. It noted that he was chief surgeon in Gen. Bowen’s Division of the Confederate Army. He was born in 1829 and died in 1906.
Close by, however, is the marker for W.M. Paxton, author of the oft-referenced Annals of Platte County, and as his lovely circular tombstone records, a “Jurist, Poet, Historian and Christian.” Paxton in his genealogy notes that a brother of Dr. McDowell (who also rode with notorious Platte rebel Silas Gordon) entered the Union Army in 1861 as a member of the 1st Kentucky Calvary. You wonder if the McDowell brothers talked politics at family gatherings?
Paxton himself, many of us believe, leaned toward the Union. Yet he was kind to Dr. McDowell in his book, noting his election to various county offices after the war and his serving in 1892-93 as a state commissioner for the World’s Fair.
Only in such places can you walk among people born in 1808 or 1812, or like James Kuykendall who was born in 1795. Paxton noted that he was one of the most popular men of his day despite belonging to no society, he did not fawn or flatter, and he was blunt. “His education was limited, but he derived his power from native common sense.”
I wish Mr. Kuykendall was here today to run for public office.
Some fresh flowers, or plastic versions, are already on some graves. It’s the sentiment that counts. Not everyone will be remembered. I noticed a small low spot with sparse, dead grass, and curious, I scraped the spot with my shoe. A small, flat, red marble stone appeared. I cleared it to read the deep etching. “Susan Patterson 1886-1920.” Well, she was remembered this year.
It is easier to walk among a cemetery where you have no family buried than it is to visit the resting place for your kin. I always feel better after I go. We are reminded of their love and our own mortality in the same moment.
Look around an old cemetery, too, and you’ll find uplift, like I did on a very weathered stone in Platte City for girls, ages 1 and 9, daughters of K. White and Frances M. McGee, who died in the first decade of the 1900s.
“Warm summer sun
Shine brightly here
May southern wind
Blow softly here
Green sod above
Lie lightly in light
Good night dear heart
Good night good night.”
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.