By Carolyn Bahm
ABERDEEN Tragedy, heroism and humor linger long after tombstone lettering begins to soften and crumble. Juniors at Aberdeen High School will resurrect a dozen poignant tales from long-lost lives in the upcoming graveyard tour, “Lies and Legends.”
The candlelit event, set for 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. April 13, will charge $1 admission and will be in the Old Aberdeen Cemetery. Lighting and the cemetery entrance will be improved from last year’s first-ever tour. The event is timed for the weekend of Aberdeen’s Spring Pilgrimage, April 12, 13 and 14.
Students researched the stories, using materials loaned from the Aberdeen Historical Society, and they will act out the roles. They also clean up the cemetery in the weeks before the evening tour. Pilgrimage veterans loan the actors their costumes and props.
Jimmy Puckett, who teaches the juniors’ honors history class, said that soil has seen Christian burials since 1836, nine years before the land was officially named a cemetery. The first graves were simply put in the backyard of Osborne Herndon.
“Most older homes in Aberdeen have graves,” Puckett said.
No one has been buried in the old cemetery since the 1950s. Those bare patches of grass don’t signify empty plots. Old tombstones tumbled, grass grew and many of the oldest graves now go unmarked. No one wants to disturb the old bones.
A wire fence surrounds most of the cemetery. Concrete steps lead, stile-like, over the fence’s edge. Puckett explained they replaced a gate that was often left flapping open, allowing cows and wildlife to meander among the tombstones.
Puckett smiled and said there is a difference between Civil War grave markers: Confederate tombstones are pointed on top, and Union ones are rounded. “They said they did it so no blank Yankee would sit on their tombstone,” Puckett said.
Stories from ancestors
This year’s “Lies and Legends” lineup retained a few favorite characters from the 1995 tour and added some fresh tales. Look for Aberdeen ministers, Mexican War veteran William Keyes, wounded Confederate soldier Willie Hogg and his nurse, and Revolutionary War hero Charles Gates, whose grave was marked by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Those were the days when women gave birth to 12 children and had to bury seven. The Coburn family has a row of tiny graves for seven children ages 2 months to 3 years. Last year, a student portrayed their mother pulling antique toys from a trunk and sadly recalling her dead children.
A lighter side of history is the eccentric tale of Alice, wife of Needham Whitfield. Vandals occasionally chip at the tomb to check her fable, a story still disputed by the family. Puckett said last year’s narrator portrayed Alice rocking and commenting on the old story: “Legend has it that I was buried sitting in my rocking chair. I’m not going to tell you if that’s true.” She laughed softly. “But if you come out here late at night, you just might hear me rocking.”
That’s just a joke, Puckett said: The goal of the event is passing along history, not to create a spooky atmosphere.
And yet … he said he hasn’t found too many old Aberdeen ghosts, although they do give the occasional chill at the cemetery.
“I was working out there once when someone tapped me on the shoulder,” Puckett said. His face was somber. “I looked around, and there was no one there.”