“Our Darling”

 

CasketHandle

Post Mortem Girl In Casket

Post Mortem Girl In Casket

 

The handle from a child’s casket (click on images to expand). Found in the grasses of the cemetery. Notice the small heart. The giveaway as to whose casket it belonged. To think 100 or 130 years ago? A pallbearer was holding it instead of me. A brother or father or uncle or cousin or nephew. Feeling solemn and fraught with emotion, and perhaps gripped it a bit harder than I as if they were protecting the memory of a tiny soldier who never made it home. Were they bright and healthy just days before? By the look of the handle I would guess a child no more than 8 or 9, and it is so delicate that it feels more ornamental than practical as many of them were. Probably a very small casket and a very young child. I own and collect such things. Now again I get a “gift” like this from the cemetery. Deemed from the unknown to care for and protect it and give it meaning again instead of winding up unappreciated or in the rubble pile at the far back of the cemetery. By the looks of it, the casket may have been covered in white velvet with some sort of pattern. I owned one like it once. A pewter coffin plate on top bearing the inscription in quotes, “Our Darling.” Satin everywhere inside and a comfy silky pillow for the child’s head. Naturally, this being found in The Catholic Cemetery, means the family of then, reasonably new to America my guess, would have observed the Irish Wake. For 3, perhaps 4 days, this casket was placed on the dining room table of the family, possibly even moved to the courtyard or even cemetery for the family to capture the strange, but often wonderfully moving, “Memento Mori” or the post-mortem photo. Prompts the wonder if such a photo is still in the family or lost to the shuffle of some distant flea market, but somewhere on the front or back of the image, remains the watermark of the studio who took it. Such places were in Savannah’s City Market at one time or the other. Painting eyeballs on the sleeping child wasn’t uncommon and some photos inscribed, “Awake In Heaven.” Did they take the child there as was often the tradition or did they have the coin only for the casket & services? Did the family easily write a check, or did the family pawn and pool all they had to give their child a final send off worthy of their life cut short and their trip to Heaven? Was this the first child to die or the 5th? Were they ever able to bring a headstone? Most children in such cemeteries of the period and often even now, have no markers. I wonder if the mama and sisters each cut locks of the child’s hair and wore them in lockets for years or the rest of their lives or put the photo and the hair in a scrapbook or shadow box? I still have the Alaskan Malamute fur from my dog Mina that died in 2007 and every now and again, reopen the bag to smell her. Did the mother occasionally do the same to recapture some scent of her child? In the quiet meditation of a moment on a rainy day, did she lightly wet the hair with her mouth to ensure the curl remained a certain way? To remember….And did she ever really let go? Taking joy in other children? Yes, these are the questions.

Many years ago, before the sweet scintilla of The South lured me, my junior & senior years were filled working in a Victorian Cemetery called Maplewood. It was there I was first made aware of the stark realities of infant mortality. The cemetery sat up on a hill surrounded by farmer’s corn fields generally. There was a day I was weed-eating over a portion of the grounds that looked as if it would soon fall into the farmer’s field. My weedeater wire began kicking up tiny bones and then small plastic medical bags I would guess, full of more of them! Turns out I’d hit upon a forgotten section where very young infants, many of them still born I would presume, were reposited without much real ceremony. In one respect, you could say I rescued that section of the cemetery.

Finding the casket handle reminded me that such sections often go lost because people want to move on. It also returns me to a strange knowing I suppose, or one that I’ve learned in the years since. That the old cemeteries? There may be one nice headstone or memorial for a child with little cherubs or a carved lamb reclining, but that may be the only stone that was ever placed for what could be several more children buried in the same plot full of adults. Maybe the one, became the memorial for them all. And that money and time and values, made it more hopeful to give more to a monument of someone who was living or had lived a full life as so often is the dynamic in Victorian plots. The one child memorial is where you paid respect to all of the children buried there. It is interesting to note that when new burials are dug in the older cemeteries, someone has the necessary and morbid task of “thumping for caskets” to ensure that the new burial does not compromise any, adult or child. I have to think however, that there is some anxiety for the worker that knows the deal that more often than not, they’ll strike a container with a child. A kind of tonal acknowledgment of life not given them since burial. Betting after the initial “THUMP,” many workers offer a quiet, “Sorry down there” and maybe a prayer. Heck, ever since I found the handle, I’ve been reminded of the one, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” that my mother and I must’ve said together hundreds of nights. And now you know why my friends…many darlings never woke up.

Today was a rainy day in Savannah cemeteries. But the drizzle was spritzing evenly and not a scary storm at all. The kind of rain that makes people want to go to the cemeteries. And they were there. Less tourists, and more relatives it appeared. You could tell. They were out walking and kneeling around certain plots with umbrellas for long periods of time and then going down to say hello to other family. And with everything around one being so old, it was not hard for me to flash back to the moments of the family and this child they’d buried. I could imagine them in what may have been the steam of St. John’s Cathedral. Was it sunny or overcast? Drizzle or downpour? Not even sure if every child got a service in the big stained glass palace, but in my mind, they did. A grand send off. People in fantastic black clothing, women waving grand hand fans, the echoes of muffled cries and a cough now and then. The casket surrounded by fragrant flowers to remind of life’s fragrance and the sunlight through the stained glass cascading across the child’s supple cheeks, warming them back to life for a second. “They look like they’re sleeping” someone murmurs to comfort. Outside awaits a white glass hearse carriage. Beveled windows like they’re burying and parading small royalty to the cemetery. Men in top hats, horses with plumes. It was probably some ride to. Hours even? As the family walked through mud and muck, behind the procession. Up the hill to the cemetery. There the gravediggers had opened the hole and stood by showing respect, ready to pat the dirt back over. Gray faces, black veils. Were there dozens of people or just a few. Or what if their only child? Just the mother and father? Narely a minister as it was too expensive? They say women weren’t allowed to watch the casket being lowered but think that some of the Irish women didn’t go for it as “shocking” after all they’d been through.

Gripping the handle once more, I note that there is one surviving burning acanthus bush still intact on the handle. The rust makes it see more alive. Did it break off as they pulled the casket from the hearse? Using rope to lower to and from and no notice was given? I was asked how such a thing could escape notice in a heavily visited cemetery. And Savannah has a metal detector club culture that is fierce, so yes, they’re more right in asking than they know. I surmise that realistically it came up during the addition to another burial some years later and may be all that’s left of the original casket. If it were 50 years ago, probably men with shovels. 10 years ago, certainly a back hoe and little notice given it. Sadly many caskets are destroyed by modern machinery. One of the dirty secrets of cemeteries now. Cemetery workers are either keen to look for such treasures or have no interest for practical and superstitious reasons. All the same, it really is a lucky find in the life of a person like me. I know its not worth much but to me, its a currency of history not money. And it now rests in the storyland of my living room museum among all of the other souvenirs from the past. But this one more personal than some from friends & eBay. This I can tie to a place and has more sensory levels. Especially for one who lived to see his baby shoes bronzed and grew past the age of ten.

NOTE: Did you enjoy this story? Learn ya few things?  Well come get the whole story with Shannon Scott on his tours. Just click the Tours tab and you’re on you’re way to the cemetery! Dribble

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26 thoughts on ““Our Darling”

    • I’m from Ireland, and the main custom that comes to my mind is the wake, which still hapnpes here sometimes. This is where the dead person spends the night before the funeral at home, and sometimes there’s a kind of party, for lack of a better word. At my grandmother’s wake, we sat around talking, eating, drinking, playing card games etc. Neighbours/friends could come and pay their respects too. I don’t think the funeral itself can be different, seeing as it has to be the Catholic funeral mass, which is the same everywhere. I must say I found the wake extremely helpful and comforting, and it was nice to know that my grandmother was spending the night in her own home rather than alone in a funeral home.

  1. I really enjoy your stories and pics. We too have an amazing cemetery where I live in quincy il. Woodland overlooks the Mississippi River. Founded about 1850s civil war monuments and beautiful hand carved stones. The original hills and valleys of the landscape were left.love to go on tours and learn more history of people buried there. Keep your stories coming.

      • My experiences of Irish Catholic fneurals are they are awesome.Lots of alcohol, singing, dancing.I know they lay the body out a day before the burial so you can visit/view.Bit strange but comforting to some.They tend to last quite a while but Ive aways enjoyed them if you know what I mean.

  2. Always love your stories. Will always have a great love for the beauty of Bonaventure Cemetery because of you!

    • Hello again Amy. You’re so kind to say so and if I’ve inspired such a feeling and claim, then I must be doing something right! Appreciate your saying so!

    • Thanks for stopping by my blog & linaevg such kind words. I just spent a lovely morning checking out your AWESOME website (my favorite part is your about me section love it~!). And also been on your blog awhile .your images are GORGEOUS & your use of light is INSPIRING. Love your work~!!!!! big smiles from Savannah, GA~!

    • Hi Tracy! You’re the best for saying so and funny but each night when I walk Kelsey in the Catholic Cemetery, I can’t help but to think of meeting you as I always see the Mock plot done by the artist John Walz so strange to say, you’re never far from memory even if a tad morbid at some level!

  3. Wow. This is an amazing story! I have to take this tour. Was this in Bonaventure? I love visiting Savannah.

    • Apologies that its been such a minute for a reply Ariana, but thank you for sparing me some time to nudge me onward. I would love to have you aboard one of my storytelling events so make sure you make additional note of your presence when one day this comes to pass! The casket handle found in The Catholic Cemetery but of course, has a feeling of all the Victorian of this period. I’m offering private tours of more than Bonaventure so if ever this feels your mode, certainly check out my tour menu on Zerve.com But my Bonaventure After Hours is a great appetizer for what I do and trust me, feels like a feast when done!

  4. A lucky find indeed Shannon….and to the perfect person. As some people say “There are no coincidences in life, things happen for a reason.” And did I learn something, yes, I always learn something from you, especially on your tours. I had no idea about the painting of the eye lids. What I love about these learning’s is that initially some of the practices seem unusual or a bit macabre, yet once you explain the rationale behind it “Awake in Heaven” – an immediate understanding and level of sympathy develops. As you know, I visit Bonaventure often and when walking by the family plots, the tiny little monuments that sit in the corner, dwarfed by their adult relatives never cease to pull at the heart strings. I’m not a Mother myself, but there is no lack of understanding (or respect) for these super-human women who lived through these unbelievably difficult and emotional situations (without Prozac, Lexapro, counseling, etc.) only to stiffen their spine, hold their head up and continue to take care of their families, households and communities….with the sad and scared realization that this tragedy could happen again. Obviously the Mother’s and families of today are not exempt, but as you say in your story, “was this the first or the fifth?” which always poses the question, “How much can one person take?” Keep the stories coming Shannon.

    • What can I say to match such words of pleasant feeling & compliment such as these? Not much less to say that they could only come from Hallie Currigan herself and need only be enjoyed. And so know that they have been and from them I take much encouragement to offer more for the fans here. Appreciate you dear! Always!

    • Ah, Ms Crabb! You’re a gem for taking a moment to share a word here and I know you dole them out to only the most worthy so all the more compliment! I would be so honored to have you participate so please know that I await the sight of your pretty face on the tour one day soon!

    • Thank you very much Sharon for taking notice of the passion. I like to think my efforts, words and feelings are valuable in the ether and the mythos of such things. And that in some grand library of the skies, they will outlast even the headstones they are often about. But nothing is forever. Even if we’re granted the special space in our life and art to feel that certain things are because we love them so deeply.

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