The Greatest Generations

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

— From “Our Town,” by Thornton Wilder

Fulfilling my earlier promise, I returned to the Ficke Cemetery last week to help clean up the patch of land about the size of my front yard that had become overgrown with trees and sumac from years of neglect as it drifted from the memories of the dwindling generations who still recall it. My family and I had first visited the site last July, and had barely been able to walk through the dense brush or see the headstones covered in brambles, especially the pitiably small stones marking the graves of the children.

We figured the site could endure the passing of another season, and after the autumn frost we’d be better able to get into cemetery that contains the marker for my mother’s great-grandfather, George Marion West and his first and second wives. The former, Henrietta had died when she was 21, just after giving birth to my great-grandfather, William. Our plan was to cut the brush and dress the grounds as best we could, and my father had received permission to get onto the property from the farmer that now owns the land that once was the Ficke farm. He’d also contacted another man who had ancestors on those grounds and who had promised to help.

Tiger Lilly and I left for Missouri last Monday for this purpose, and our mission caused me to pay greater attention to the many cemeteries we pass on our familiar route through Iowa and into the Show-Me state. Rural cemeteries can be a mixed bag in appearance; some that we drove by were out in the open, unornamented, looking as stark and as hard as a trailer-park, or as if they were just another crop sunk into the ground with hopes for the best. In Westphalia, Missouri the cemetery is right in the heart of the town, and begins on the very edge of two-lane Highway 63 and climbs the side of a low hill, under the watchful eye of the crucified Jesus. Just north of Bloomfield, Iowa the town’s cemetery covers another slope that creates a natural, sweeping amphitheater overlooking downtown, giving the impression that the dead rest where they can easily watch the goings on in the community like the scene in “Our Town.” By early evening Highway 63 has turned back into a four-lane and we drive past Ashland, Missouri and another hill that bumps up against the side of the road. Looking straight up we see the silhoutte of a church and steeple, and its graveyard filled with monuments featuring tall, narrow columns and spires. Against the pink, red and yellow sunset the monuments look like so many rockets, pointed at Heaven.


To see the Google Maps aerial view of the Ficke Cemetery before we cleaned it out, go here. The cemetery is the green square in the center of the image, jutting out to the east from the other woods and located south and west of the McCallister Road.

6 thoughts on “The Greatest Generations

  1. Wow, I guess I didn’t think you guys would get it that well cleaned up in such a short amount of time. I’ve cleared brush like that before, and I know it’s hard labor but also very very time-consuming. Very good job, especially in that period of time.

  2. Power tools are the secret. We created paths with the long-handled clippers first so that we could find the headstones. Once we found them we clipped around each to clear an area so the chainsaw could work safely. Anything up to an inch and a half or so I could cut with my clippers and the chainsaw did the rest on the cedars and other larger saplings the first day. Dragging and piling was a big part of it and the youngsters worked diligently without complaint (well, except for all the thorny stuff). We were pretty “bushwhacked” the end of the first day, though. We left the littler stuff for the brush-cutter which was pushed through the area on Friday and then it was just chopping yucca and raking leaves and groundcover onto tarps and dragging it all to the fire. Around noon my mother and the wives of my uncle and Rich drove out with a big basket of lunch. All in all, it was a pretty satisfying experience.

  3. Well, we restricted the beer-drinking until the work was just about done each day, and that probably made a difference. We also motivaed the kids by telling them that if they worked hard dragging stuff away we’d let them swing dangerous, sharp objects.

  4. My mother has documented our family’s history by spending many a day crawling through prickly brush to seek long-forsaken headstones. You’ve illuminated her motivating with your exquisite writing. Thank you for the beautiful story!

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