Arkansas woman finds hobby in researching tombstones
By LAURINDA JOENKS
Oct. 28, 2017
MENA, Ark. (AP) — "I'd rather be in a cemetery," said Abby Burnett of rural Kingston. "I talk tombstones. They are my people."
And to prove it, Burnett took off, ignoring shoulder-high weeds and saw briers, to get a closer look at the Packsaddle cemetery, an abandoned site outside of Waldron.
"I see tombstones where there aren't any," Burnett told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette , hoping the object she'd set her sights on was a tombstone, not a fence post.
This time, Burnett's instincts were true. She waded back through the weeds to her car for garden loppers with which she cut the brush for a closer look.
Burnett is a "taphophile," which is from the Greek: "to love graves."
After visiting many cemeteries across the Arkansas Ozarks, she began to notice similarities. She found herself drawn to the symbols and statues carved into stone with a definite Ozark folk-art flair. Her passion led to a book, Gone to the Grave: Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850-1950 (University Press of Mississippi, 2014).
Her goal on this early October trip to Waldron was to revisit the work of three Arkansas stone carvers, Isham or Isom Daniel, his daughter Lucy, and A. Pitasky — or at least that's Burnett's best guess. During the late 1800s, carvers sometimes signed their names to their work, which Burnett noticed, she said, because she had visited so many graves so many times.
Burnett belongs to groups statewide and nationwide whose members hunt for unusual cemeteries and markers. She trolls ancestory.com, the Arkansas Gravestones graves registry, findagrave.com, the Association for Gravestone Studies, Monumental News and listens to the stories of friends of friends.
On this trip to Scott County, Burnett started her day at the Scott County Library in Waldron to check the county's grave registry book, comparing it to what she had been told, looking for directions.
The first cemetery she sought was said to be down "White Oak Road," the last road to the right before reaching U.S. 71. She relies on an older Arkansas atlas with cemeteries marked. "But sometimes the roads have been reconfigured," she explained one obstacle of her search.
Finally, Burnett punched the street into her car's GPS and was on her way.
The person who shared the information with Burnett said the cemetery — which included just one marker — was in the middle of someone's pasture but was visible from the road. After several trips up and down the road, Burnett moved on.
After a stop at the Waldron city cemetery to photograph gravestones by the Daniel in a different light, Burnett searched for the Packsaddle cemetery, said to be abandoned.
To access the cemetery, Burnett had to use a private road. She stopped at the house to ask permission and grabbed a dog biscuit from her car's console to appease the dog on the porch. The residents weren't at home, and the dog slept through Burnett's arrival but did awaken in time for its treat.
"I've had dogs join me as I explore a cemetery," said Burnett, also an avid dog lover. "I even had one cocker spaniel lay his head in my lap while I petted him. I wanted to take him home, but he seemed like he had a home nearby."
Burnett traveled the road to Packsaddle, with instructions that told her the cemetery was in the clearing cut for overhead power lines. "Oh, this must be it," she said, seemingly surprised when she reached the clearing. "Is that a tombstone," she asked.
"This is a tombstone," Burnett said after cutting away the weeds. "Oh, my, this is very nice."
Burnett pulled out a photographer's reflective panel, which turned the light back onto the lettering, she explained. She read aloud carvings on that first marker: "J.A., son of J.W. and E.D. Pool."
The death date was unclear, but Burnett dated it to post-1903 because of its concrete construction. But the marker noted J.A. lived just 32 days, Jan. 16 to Feb. 2.
J.A. Pool's marker was a tall spire. "It seems tall for just a small child, but there really is no correlation in age and the size of the stone," Burnett shared her experiences.
A few feet away, a shorter stone was hidden by the weeds. "1838 to 1917," Burnett read the dates of that person's life. "That's a little ahead of the influenza epidemic."
This stone bore a carving of a hand breaking three lengths of chains. This is a common motif, Burnett said. "It's the hand of God breaking the chains at death. Link by link is broken from the earth."
"It's a reminder to the living to the living that death is only a temporary state for the faithful," according to gravestoneaddiction.com.
Looking around, peering through weeds and trees, Burnett located a few more gravestones just out of the clear-cut area. The Scott County records listed 25 names with stones in 1987. Burnett found just eight, although unidentified piles of stone lay under the high lines, and an Arkansas Gravestones post noted that crypts had been run over.
"Tombstones sometimes 'wander off'," Burnett said. "They are used for building other structures, or for doorstops. What's interesting about this cemetery is how the stones disappeared over time, based on enumerations of this cemetery in various years."
Cutting away more saw briers, Burnett made her way to graves in the trees where she noticed a familiar hand on the initials of a downed foot stone. A few steps past it lay a downed headstone, broken in two pieces.
Burnett went to lift the stone to read the lettering that faced the ground. "Let's hope there's not a snake under here," she said as she began. "Nope. Only fire ants."
Burnett keeps her "cemetery bag" in her car at all times, she said. It includes the loppers, an extra camera memory card and cleaning supplies.
Using a dish brush to wipe off mulch and her reflector to bring out the words, Burnett said, "This is what I came to see. This is my guy. This is amazing. This makes everything worth it today."
This was the work of Pitasky — on the grave of Mary Looper. "We were looking for Loopers. They used his work in other cemeteries. It's identical to those in the Looper cemetery. Given that there is the Looper cemetery not all that far away (same county) I'm surprised that she wasn't buried there."
On the grave of J.D. "Mr." Looper" (as Burnett called him) in the Looper cemetery, Pitasky carved a likeness of the deceased, complete with a jacket, curly hair, eyebrows, closed eyes, mustache and a forked beard, Burnett shared.
"But I wonder what he was trying to do here," she puzzled at Mary Looper's grave. "It looks like a tree stump. I normally would think Woodmen of the World (with members' tombstones carved in the shape of a tree or stump), but that doesn't make any sense."
Pitasky had carved a broken column, representing a life cut short. Finally, Burnett decided he was carving a tree with a coffin under it, as she had seen in the county's Pleasant Grove Cemetery — the only piece she has found signed by him.
"We don't really know who the man is," Burnett said. "We know he was here, and then he was gone. There was no census in 1890."
The carver's work got better as time passed. His illustrations became less crude — and even his spelling improved. On one early stone he spelled "adg" for aged and even left a letter off of the name "Pennington," obvious as it was surrounded by other gravestones where it was spelled correctly.
"But why would you waste a good stone," Burnett asked. "It would cost the family about $10 to $20 to have a stone carved.
"He tended to spell 'Born' and 'Died' correctly, though occasionally he reversed the N on 'Born,'" she added.
Burnett explained that many of the stone carvers in the late 1800s were itinerant. They would come to an area, and families would commission stones for their relatives — often long dead but without stones because no carver was available. Burnett said the back-order time on these stones seemed to be about two years. "After that, people just didn't die fast enough for a carver to support himself," she said. Or perhaps someone the carver had apprenticed took away the business.
"A carver had to be an artist, a grief counselor, good at books so he could get paid and carry those heavy stones around," Burnett continued.
While Mary Looper's sandstone headstone appeared worn down on first inspection, Burnett worked to get enough information to piece together the inscription. "It's weird, but the sandstone holds up better than the imported marble."
"As near as I can tell, she was born on Oct. 18, 1859 (although it could be '57)," Burnett said. But a second birth date was inscribed on the stone: Dec. 25, 1881. "Perhaps this was for a child who was born and died on the same day, because Mary would have been in her early 20s. The death date is Oct. 8, 1887 or 1889."
A recorder with Arkansas Gravestones supposed each half of Mary Looper's tombstone marked a separate grave.
Burnett thinks her current research will lead to a book on Arkansas gravestones, which might include a chapter dedicated to Pitasky and the Daniels, whose work also appears in Bluff and Salem Lutheran cemeteries in Springdale and Rogers city cemetery.
She is looking for unusual gravestones and has contacts from across the state.
Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com