When the Cemetery Whispers

October 1, 2016 | By More

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For some inhabitants of Russellville, life goes on around them with little notice of their existence. They are the voices of the past, these 5,000 souls (plus two dogs) who inhabit the thirty acres known as Oakland Cemetery that sits smack-dab in the middle of town. Built in 1847, the historic resting place was just a quiet background of the community until one self-declared Yankee with a penchant for digging around developed a passion for this silent community and began unearthing secrets — and unknown graves.

Stephanie Warwick, with the assistance of a dedicated cemetery commission, is the person who has breathed life into this sacred place. A legal clerk for City Attorney Trey Smith, Stephanie was gifted the cemetery four months after she started her employment in 2014. “To tell you the truth, I was petrified of cemeteries,” she says, “but I thought that if I needed to do this to keep my job I better learn to like it.”

Like it, she does and she shares her mantra. “I always say that how you care for your dead reflects on how you care for your living. If your cemetery is run down and overgrown, then your city is run down and overgrown.” She hastily adds, “In my opinion.”

Warwick learned on the fly. She wrote a standard operating manual where there was none and keeps all the forms and policies updated. She has big goals: working on becoming a historic site, creating a database, replacing broken bits here and there and reaching out to families to discuss needed repairs on monuments and stones. “We really can’t touch the monuments and grave stones. Those are the property of the families,” she says.

Warwick might have received a clue about her future career when after a random drawing for a ninth grade career day assignment she and a friend were tasked with shadowing the town mortician. Warwick was scared, but the job included a few perks. “We got to try out the caskets, and that was fun,” she says. But then she encountered the baby caskets. Warwick remembers asking the mortician how he could deal with the babies. “I remember the answer was, ‘there is something heavenly given when you care for the dying, especially the children.’ That has always stuck with me,” she says.

Although the majority of souls at Oakland are adults, there are children. Many lived mere months. The Davis family lost four infant children between the years of 1884-1892. Any number of reasons could be cited for such high mortality rates in the community’s early days. Could the mother have been weakened by illness? Could lack of proper nutrition or prenatal care have been the culprit? Warwick feels called to learn these answers and to know the stories.

Cemeteries do talk, she assures me as we stroll through Oakland Cemetery. There are clues, and there are enigmas. Suddenly, Warwick falls to the ground, “Here they are!” she exclaims. The stone pieces are half-buried and face down as she scrapes dirt away from the lettering and assembles the headstone. “These are the two children I’ve been looking for.” Willie (deceased in 1878) shares a headstone with his sister Claudia (deceased in 1876).“Oh my God, hello children” Warwick says, a little out of breath. The siblings’ infant brother Charles lies next to them. They are listed as the children of W.C. and J.B. Renfrow. Could the babies be casualties from the Yellow Fever epidemic that hit Arkansas hard during those years? We may never know for sure.

We do know these pioneers lived in exceedingly challenging times, particularly for the women. Cultural norms of the day are evident at the Renfrow site. William Cary Renfrow (1845-1922) lies beside his wife. “Back in those days, a woman would leave her home and to honor her husband and his family, she would be buried with his family,” Warwick says. “She was always buried to his left (from the mourner’s perspective), as during a marriage ceremony, because she was believed to have been created from his left rib.” Since around the 1940s, Warwick has noticed a trend for wives to lie to the right of their husbands. Her curiosity is piqued, and she admits, “I want to find out why that is.”

There are hints about the past, especially in traditions that sometimes last many generations and others which are unique to a certain timeframe. However, one tradition does not sit well with Warwick. In early American cemeteries the names of women were often omitted. Even if the women were mentioned, their lives were not elaborated upon. The resting place of Lewis W. Davis and his wife are not unusual. On his side of the monument Lewis is described as “a great lawyer, a loyal friend, and a kind father,” but the other side reads only, “Elizabeth, wife of Lewis W. Davis.” It’s as if she had not lived outside of his existence. Warwick is determined to fix that erasure, so when she finds information that enhances brief mentions on the stones she documents it.  “I can’t fix the tombstones, but at least I can give them back their names in my records,” she says. “Future genealogists will know who they are.”

Many clues point to social practices that no longer exist. The marble tree trunks, for example, are easily recognized by past generations but not so today. From 1890-1900 Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization open to all men, offered an insurance policy which provided a free monument in the shape of a tree trunk to its members upon death. Membership was especially prevalent in the South. Between 1900-1920, the company continued to offer the service for a fee of $100 but stopped after the 1920s due to rising costs of the stones.

There is etiquette to visiting the cemetery, and Warwick gingerly steps between graves as we talk.  “There are areas not platted here, and nothing is in a straight line,” says Warwick. In the oldest part of the cemetery, which will be the area covered in an upcoming interpretive tour, the irregular planning, and architectural motifs seem other-worldly. “Some practices go back to the Salem witch trials,” says Warwick, “like encasing the grave.” A crude headstone marks where J.J. Faulconer (1907) rests, and it along with three smaller blank stones protrude from a concrete block surrounded by fresh-mown grass. “Concrete was hard to get in the early 1900s,” Warwick says, “so what is the significance of this and who do these three blank stones belong to?”

Some truths revealed are rock solid, however, and the cemetery certainly delivers for history buffs. There are several mayors, an Oklahoma territorial governor, and Russellville founding fathers Dr. Thomas Russell and Jacob Shinn who built the first store in 1847. “Did you know that the house where the Chamber of Commerce is was the first house built in the city?” Warwick asks. I did not. I was also unaware that Russellville’s first mayor, Joseph Battenfield, (1795 – 1852) ran the first land deed office, an important responsibility in the new territory.

In fact, Russellville was a part of a Cherokee reservation between the years 1818-1828. It was not until the Cherokee were removed to a proper Indian Territory in 1828 that the area surrounding and including Russellville became available for settlement. Before it was named for Dr. Russell, the area went by the name Chactas Prairie, and its first white settler was P.C. Holledger. Russellville was incorporated in 1870. From that past, Oakland Cemetery interred its only known Cherokee resident, Evy Hunt. Her husband, William Hunt, is buried in Del City, Oklahoma.

Economic distance between family members is symbolized in the cemetery. Statues, iron fences, and large monuments marking a grave are indicative of money and status, Warwick says. Within the same family, there are those who are buried apart from the others, the craftsmanship of their simple stones in sharp contrast to the more elaborate surroundings a few feet away. If you use all your senses and pay attention, these differences whisper stories, and Warwick is every bit the grave whisperer as she walks in silent communication on this holy ground.

The Scott family, one of many prominent families in Oakland Cemetery, rests in an area surrounded by an intricate iron fence. The site is also decorated by one of the loveliest statues in the cemetery. It’s a likeness of the Virgin Mary with an anchor at her feet signifying the saint’s role as protector of sailors, guardian against storms, and as a beacon of safe harbor for those returning home. Patriarch Andrew Horatio Scott, born in 1789, was one of the first Supreme Court judges of Arkansas Territory. He was notorious for twice murdering men in duels. The latter event was unique because he drew a sword from inside his walking cane.

The stories of the outcasts, the ne’er-do-wells, and the down-and-outers are often the most telling. There are also cold stories because there are no clues and no family. A widowed sharecropper that raised two boys on her own is one of the cemetery’s residents. She lived until 2014 when Warwick stood with one of the sons for the funeral because the other son was unavailable and there was no one else to pay respects. 

The last son died recently. There are other souls who, unfortunately, have no one to care for them except Warwick. She has recently attempted to intervene on behalf of a body that has become a ward of the state. “I asked the funeral home to pass along the information that his grave space was paid for. Even if there is surviving family, sometimes the family doesn’t have the means to claim a person and pay for a funeral,” she says. “I have heard there are cabinets of ashes of those left unclaimed.” The drama of the living carries over into the cemetery. There are no accommodations for those who die penniless.

Warwick aspires to address that need. “There is not a Potter’s Field here, and I would love to be able to form one and accept donations to offer every person the dignity of a funeral,” she says. That is one of many hopes she expresses. She is, however, proud of the work she is doing to make sure the veterans are recognized.

Oakland is home to 283 war veterans who served this country in conflicts ranging from the War of 1812 to the Persian Gulf War.  Warwick is researching whether she has found a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) veteran from the second World War. Most of the veterans are from World War II. Decoration Day is a big deal here.

Family includes more than humans in Oakland Cemetery. Two dogs are at perpetual rest here. One is rumored to be a “spoiled French poodle” named Molly Mayes, Warwick says and laughs. The rumor goes that Molly had a “full, human funeral.” Warwick puts on a straight face and says, “She was in a coffin and everything.” But Warwick admits, “Sometimes I have to figure out if it’s a true story or if someone’s yanking my chain.” She has become rather fond of the dog whose site is documented by a small inscribed stone. Mouchee Jenkins has been resting with his family, Richard Luke, Grace, and their infant son Richard Jenkins since the early 1950s. “He has the sweetest little headstone, and I used to think it was such an unusual name for a child,” Warwick says. Employing her sleuthing skills, she found out the facts, and now resident guard dogs Mouchee and Molly have been added to the expanding collection of Oakland stories.

Every time she visits her adopted family, Warwick finds something unexpected, she says. The Holy Grail is finding someone new. “I’ll find someone out there my records don’t include,” she says, “and that just gives me goosebumps.” Resurrecting stories is not that different than finding lost souls. “Genealogy has really hit big. I’ve probably already received thirty calls so far this year, folks looking for lost family members. I will come out, take a picture, tell them what I know. If we don’t have information, they’ll share and we’ll add that to our documentation,” she says.
It’s a connection that people crave.

Warwick credits Joy Smolinski, an employee of the city attorney, for her immeasurable support and for serving in the event of Warwick’s absence. Warwick is also grateful for the dedication of the Oakland Cemetery Board Commissioners. Many on the board have spent their entire lives in the area. Those members are the heart of the cemetery and assist her efforts to mine information, she says. “Anna Page Fields  is one of the original board commissioners of the cemetery committee, and she is a wealth of knowledge about the area, but they are all a very dedicated crew,” says Warwick.

Big plans for the cemetery are on the horizon, including a Memorial Garden Columbarium. Phase one has begun along the north-south property line where a hexagonal columbarium gleams on a newly poured pathway. It is the first of what Warwick hopes will be three. The setting sun catches the tower, and it is easy to imagine the proposed complex in its finished state. Each repository will contain 72 units to house cremation remains. There are also plans for a curved columbarium and either a reflecting pool or peaceful statue. The construction of the garden is long overdue. “It is good for the environment, for the economy, and for spiritual reasons,” says Warwick. She told the committee that over 68 percent of Americans choose cremation.

Warwick has also launched an online database that will be accessible to families and genealogists. She will enter GPS coordinates for each soul that will be marked with a virtual flag that, when clicked, will provide more information and a photo of the soul who rests there. City Attorney Trey Smith is proud of the cemetery work. “Stephanie is doing a wonderful job with the cemetery. The people of Russellville are grateful for her service,” he said.

Some of the services make for unexpected situations. Warwick and a tree service crew had been tending to the aftermath of tornadic winds that had uprooted a 61-foot oak tree believed to be around 100 years old. “I had these big guys who were working hard and had really worked up a hunger,” she recalls. The crane company used a cell phone to order up pizza. “I know it must have been pretty weird for the Domino’s people to deliver all that pizza to the cemetery, but hey, you do what you gotta do,” she says.

Naturally, the cemetery has transformed over time. “Anna Fields brought me pictures of her and her teenage friends in front of the mausoleum that used to be here,” Warwick says. There was a time when the cemetery was the most beautiful place to visit in the community, and folks would meet there over picnic lunches. A one-armed statue testifies to the aesthetics that drew visitors. “She used to hold a torch with a type of iridescent glass that would catch the light from the sun,” Warwick says. The monument reads “In memory of Mattie, wife of R. S. Bradley. Born Feb. 7, 1874. Died Dec. 29, 1893.”

Elegant prose is another aesthetic that graces the monuments. One monument bears the following sentiment:

She sleeps in the valley so sweet
But her spirit has taken its flight
Lo! her form is but dust ‘neath our feet
While she is an angel of light.

Asleep in Jesus’ precious thought
With peace and life eternal bought
He said whose power upholds the sky
Believing she shall never die.

Over time, Warwick has transformed as well. She is no longer afraid of cemeteries. “There is no reason to be scared. This is our family,” she says, “but there has been a long-standing rule that we don’t allow dogs to lie beside you for eternity.” Of course, many people today also consider their pets as family members, but it seems the word around town is that all dogs go to heaven.

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