by Fabrizia Faustinella
The house across the street from ours had been abandoned for many years and was now falling apart. The roof was collapsing, the front door hardly standing, the back door was jammed, and many windows were shuttered. The vegetation grew wild and unchecked; the vines took hold of the house like tentacles of a giant octopus.
The woman who used to live there, Mrs. Green, was a widow who died many years ago. Nobody ever moved into the house after she passed away.
We knew there must have been an owner, perhaps someone living out of town, but for some reason he never showed up to take care of the place, and the “For Sale” sign never appeared. The neighbors would take turns mowing the yard and cleaning some of the overgrown vegetation to minimize the unsightly look of the neglected property. One woman said she saw a homeless man enter the house from a broken window. She said that the house must have been full of critters, possums, and raccoons—maybe even rats and snakes. The city’s authorities were informed of the dilapidated conditions of the house, and they came to inspect it. A court date was set for the mysterious owner to show up and take responsibility, or else the house would be condemned by the city and torn down.
My husband, Nick, had a few chats with Mrs. Green when she was still alive. He felt a sense of kinship toward her, and decided to check the inside of the house before its unavoidable final demise. He hoped to rescue family photos and items that could have been of sentimental value, in case any relatives ever showed up. I was concerned that the house would collapse during his inspection and advised him against it to no avail.
“You won’t believe what I found inside!” he said, all sweaty and excited when he returned home carrying a bag full of photos, framed and unframed. “There is a marble tombstone with the name Julius Green carved on it, U.S. Army, World War II, Mar 14, 1914–Aug 18, 1968. He was Mrs. Green’s late husband, a World War II veteran! It looks like Mrs. Green never found a way to take the tombstone to the cemetery where he was buried. Most likely she had no help and no family around to take care of it.”
I looked at the dusty family photos and wondered what had happened to those people. Some were children, some young adults, some looked like grandparents. There were graduation photos, formal photos, photos of a family having an outdoor party, photos of an older, well-dressed woman with star earrings and a fancy hairstyle. How was it possible that everybody had disappeared? Where were they? While I was wiping the photos with a wet rag, Nick went on to say how sad it was that Mr. Julius Green could be forgotten like that. Nick felt the only honorable next step for him was to retrieve the heavy tombstone, take it upon himself to bring it to the cemetery, and finally place it where it rightfully belonged. A World War veteran definitely deserved to be remembered and have a proper tomb marker.
Of course, Nick had to do some research. He had to figure out where exactly Mr. Green had been buried. Thanks to a number of online state, military, and census records, Nick came to find out that Mr. Green, for some reason, hadn’t been buried next to his wife, but in a different cemetery—the Josserand Memorial Cemetery in Trinity County, Texas—along with the rest of the Green family.
Josserand was founded in 1882 by two entrepreneurs, Peter and Frank Josserand, who developed a logging industry and established a sawmill in the community. At that time, Josserand had 550 residents as well as schools, a post office, and two churches. In 1909, the sawmill ceased operations. It turns out that several of Mr. Green’s relatives, like many other members of the local Black community, were employed at the sawmill and even lost a few fingers while cutting wood. His father, Julius Green Sr., and three of his uncles were World War I veterans.
One day, Nick went on his mission to the abandoned house across the street. He said he would have pried loose the lock and latch of the metal gate in front of the back door, and then unjammed the door. He reemerged a while later with the heavy, gray tombstone on a wheelbarrow. He deposited it in our backyard against the garage wall, and pointed at a few dark stains that he planned to clean with the proper products. He wanted the tombstone to be immaculate.
Once the tombstone, now clean and shiny, passed Nick’s inspection it was time to plan our trip to the Josserand Cemetery. On a Sunday morning, I packed drinks and food. Nick loaded the truck with all the tools necessary to do the job: shovel, level, a ground tamper, sand, gravel, planks, buckets, and the wheelbarrow.
It was April and very hot already, mainly under the sun, so I decided to bring a large UV umbrella. I cut some flowers from our backyard, white oleanders, daisies, and red amaryllis, and placed them in a large vase. I took a yellow votive candle from the house. We would light it after the job was done. We were planning a small ceremony with prayers and even sprinkles of holy water from the Sanctuaries of Fátima and the Black Virgin of Costa Rica.
The cemetery was located in the woods. Along the dusty dirt road that led there were a few homes, falling apart and unkept. As of the last census, Josserand had a population of 29. In a gravel parking lot, there was a trailer with “Church” written on it. A few people were sitting outside on metal chairs under the sun, waiting for the service to start. A small, discolored wooden building, the old church was closed up and no longer in use. It felt surreal that not too far from a major metropolis, there could be a place so seemingly isolated and in a state of total abandonment. Even the sign above the cemetery entrance had fallen apart. Two wooden planks, crossing one another, read “serand” and “Memorial.”
Nick unloaded all the tools from the back of the truck, but there was a problem: Mr. Green’s tomb did not have any marker at all. If there was a wooden one, it must be gone, maybe destroyed over the years by the elements. More than half a century had gone by since the burial after all. But Nick had done his research well and knew where Mr. Green’s relatives, his father, his mother, his grandmother, and his uncle were buried. So he guessed that Mr. Green must have been buried next to his father’s tomb, and started to dig a few feet away from it, where there seemed to be a likely resting place. After much digging and sweating, somewhat alleviated by the sun umbrella, Nick reached the top of a coffin. That must have been Mr. Green’s casket. I was impressed by the precision of his calculation and relieved he was able to find it. Without a marker nobody would have known, nor would ever know, that somebody was buried there. Although we were not even sure Mr. Green had anybody at all interested in visiting his grave.
While Nick was laying the foundation for the tombstone, I walked in the cemetery and wondered how many more unmarked graves there must have been there. How many more people were lying under my feet, long forgotten? Many grave markers were severely corroded. Many had fallen down, lying flat on the ground or leaning on a side. I saw faded plastic flowers on a few small, unnamed graves, maybe the burial sites of children. An act of piety from an anonymous visitor.
It was an old cemetery. I was able to recognize some dates going back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. So many forgotten people left behind by history, literally swallowed by earth, dust on dust, nothing left to remember them by, not even their names. The world moved on, oblivious of their existence, as if they had never lived, as if their lives did not matter in the least.
Nick had finally completed the job. The headstone was now in the ground, solid, unmovable, hopefully planted forever. I placed the flowers in front of the shiny headstone and lit the votive candle. We recited prayers for Mr. Green, and concluded our ceremony with a heartfelt “Amen” while sprinkling the holy waters.
On our way back home, I found myself thinking that nearly all the people who ever lived are now completely forgotten.
When a person dies their immediate family and friends grieve and feel a sense of loss, but even that dissipates with time. After a generation or two, no one has a personal recollection of the deceased. How many people can remember their great-grandparents or even know their names? For many people, the gravestone or a mention in some archival documents are the only vestige that they ever existed.
But the problem to me wasn’t that most people were forgotten shortly after they died, although this too felt sad. What disturbed me was the idea of being forgotten when we are still alive, becoming obsolete and irrelevant, fading away before passing away. Many stories came to mind, like one about an old man who died of natural causes and was found dead weeks later, decomposed, in his apartment. Nobody ever missed him.
I thought of all the people nobody is interested in. The people who live at the margins of society. The people nobody gives a second thought about. The people who pick our fruits and vegetables in the fields and dry our coffee beans under the unforgiving sun. The people ravaged by war and disease. The elderly, the poor, the homeless. The children separated from their parents at the border. The children growing in foster homes with no mothers and no fathers. The orphans, the untouchable, the outcast. They are alive but overlooked, ignored, unappreciated, unrecognized, lost. They are alive, but disregarded; still on this earth, but already forgotten.
Fabrizia Faustinella has published numerous research articles and educational books. More recently, she has been inspired to write about her personal and professional experiences in a number of essays, which have been published in literary magazines and medical journals. She is a physician and filmmaker.