There is a stillness. A sense of calm as one takes steps through these grounds. A soft, pitter-patter of steps against soil that resonate with the steps taken by those that came before. Rows of the ever-present litter the landscape, waiting for us to one day join them, but stuck in an eternal roll call of remembered souls. Each stone forged in the shadow of a life once lived, but now lost. There is meaning in this stillness, feeling in the air, and shouting in the soil.
Her name was Mercy Lena Brown. A woman still honored and remembered, claimed in Death’s realm through disease, yet victim of injustice and superstition. She lived in suffering for nineteen years, shedding tears for the family she lost to consumption, until she herself was consumed.
They were Union and Confederate soldiers felled at bloody conflicts, necessitated by the needs of the enslaved, and brought on by the greed of the privileged. Lost men and boys, forced to claim lives in the name of a cause, which would later forget their names. Their timelines united by a common end, the inevitable side effect of life: death. Everyone wants to be remembered. Walking through the beaten-down dirt path, there is an overwhelming calm that shrouds the atmosphere. An unsettling stillness shared by the mounds of untouched snow covering the evidence of those graves that are no longer visited. The forgotten. Hundreds of worn headstones, begging and pleading for attention, their carvings almost screaming: I’m here! I’m here! It is suffocating. Yet, this does not compare to the crushing stillness of the aftermath of battle, where there is no path or calm. There are mounds of untouched slain which will mostly be left behind, grave-less bodies which will not be visited, but still remembered. Memory is all their families will have left. Mercy Brown had nothing left.
Emily Dickinson spent four years writing about the suffering of both soldiers and civilians during the Civil War. The untallied casualties, and broken promises of safe returns are bountiful among her inked pages. Doubts and religious non-conformity swept through communities as the war’s carnage turned rivers red, and battlegrounds rotting black. The churchyard was eerily clean, blinding because of its cover of virgin snow. Still, there was an omnipresent grief which permeated from the countless graves, especially those whose inscriptions have eroded away with time. Religious symbols- crosses, rosaries, prayers- were common among the monuments, as if their presence granted the living closure. The closure that countless of grieving mothers would have needed when their sons and husbands did not return from the war.
Mercy Brown was denied closure. After being buried for two months, locals dug up her remains, and upon finding them intact, accused Brown of being a vampire. Her remains were scattered, her heart shattered and burned on a nearby rock. The ashes of her heart given to her ill step-brother as a cure, yet the consumption of her body did not save him from his own. She rests today in the Chestnut Hill Baptist Churchyard, hopefully undisturbed. Death is a peaceful state. It is the calm after a tumultuous storm, the promise of eternal rest.
The soldiers of the war undertook hellish consequences in life, with the promise of heavenly paradise to come after. Mercy was denied the treatment of her namesake in life but was commemorated in death. Their experiences seemed to mirror each other. Seashells, flowers, and petals littered on the ground, a promise that her soul is not forgotten. The stillness of these gravesites will forever hold death’s meaning.