In some ways, our ancestors were closer to the realities of death a century ago than we are today. Because many of them lived with their extended family in small communities, without access to hospitals and funeral homes, they saw all phases of dying and death. They took care of the ill and prepared the deceased’s body. They made funeral clothes and sat with the corpse before burial. They built the coffin and dug the grave. They grieved with family and friends and memorialized their loved ones.
A Death in the Family
A look at early area obituaries finds causes of death for which we are still, sadly, too familiar, although some of the terms have changed. Cancer and typhoid fever were often listed, along with “la grippe” (influenza), consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis), apoplexy (stroke), and dropsy (accumulation of fluid in tissues or a body cavity). Murders and suicides were described in shocking detail.
Some accidental deaths of long ago mirror today’s headlines. In Brentwood (Washington County), Mrs. Conklin was crossing the West Fork of the White River by horseback in 1890, carrying a baby while her two sons rode behind. Deciding the river was too swift, she tried to turn around but all fell off the horse and the boys drowned. Similar occurrences happened in early 2011, when folks were swept downstream after attempting to cross rain-swollen rivers in their cars.
But some deaths occurred for reasons we don’t normally see today. Many young girls and women died of burns received after their floor-length dresses caught fire when they stood too close to the hearth. Young Lloyd Combs of Huntsville (Madison County) was killed by a runaway horse in 1912 after his foot became entangled in his saddle’s stirrup. In 1889, 13-year-old Hezekiah Gregg of Rogers (Benton County) was killed as he attempted to jump onto a train for a free ride to Van Buren. He slipped and fell beneath the moving railroad cars.
Some folks were inconsolable after their spouse died. J.A. Stevenson of Springdale (Washington County) died in 1908, several years after his wife’s death. He lived “…a very lonely life. He would often visit [her] grave and pray to die, that he might be with her.” When Catherine Blackburn of War Eagle (Benton County) died in 1890, her husband Sylvanus told diggers not to close the grave. He died five days later after praying to join his wife.
Harriet Fincher's false tomb, Strain Cemetery, Strain (Washington County).
During a burial, some folks were so grieved that they wept loud and long. In fact, some women wept on purpose in order to put the crowd in an emotional state. The free-flowing tears eased tensions and demonstrated love for the deceased. Around 1900 young Nora L. Davis Standlee of Carroll County was so frightened by the sounds of wailing during a funeral that she hid in her parent’s wagon with a blanket over her head.
These days we don’t usually take photographs of the dead. But around the turn of the 20th century, snapping photos of a child, parent, or spouse was an accepted and appreciated form of remembrance. The image might simply be of the deceased laid upon a bed or in their coffin. But some images were more elaborate and loving, featuring carefully arranged flowers, draperies, and grief-stricken relatives.
Final Resting Place
With a largely rural population in the 19th and early 20th century Arkansas Ozarks, many of the dead were buried in small family, community, or church cemeteries. Often cemeteries were located on high ground to avoid the possibility of a rising water table causing coffins to float in their graves. In some cemeteries, families claimed large burial plots. Otherwise, folks were buried randomly or in the order of their death, which sometimes led to the separation of a husband and wife who happened to die years apart. Rural cemeteries only saw a handful of burials a year, so mowing the grass wasn’t a big priority. A path was cut in the overgrown weeds when a burial occurred.
In large, established towns, burial plots were often bought by families and the graves arranged in a geometric grid. The vegetation was better maintained as burials were more frequent and townsfolk enjoyed strolling the grounds. Many cemeteries had a potter’s field where the poor were buried. But at the Black Jack Cemetery in Carroll County, paupers were buried alongside those with means. Even in death African Americans were usually segregated. In towns with sizable black populations, like Fayetteville and Bentonville (Washington and Benton Counties), separate cemeteries were established. Smaller cemeteries had black sections. Eureka Springs (Carroll County) was an exception. Beginning in the 1880s, blacks and whites were buried next to one another.
Some graves were fashioned in certain ways to remind the living of their loved ones. For a time a footstone was placed at the end of a grave, providing a rough boundary for the coffin below. In Washington County, the false crypts at Reese and McCord Cemeteries are coffin-shaped, above-ground stone structures placed over underground burials. Several cemeteries in Newton County, including that of Mossville Church, feature graves covered with high, rounded mounds of bare dirt, making them look like recent burials.