The memorial service held in the Oconee Hills Cemetery Mar. 20 fell far short of the healing such rites are capable of fostering. Why did the university bully to steer the whole affair? Was there some blush of discomfort felt regarding former treatment of burials on campus? There are living Athenians who remember the disregard, and even the sacrilege meted on the remains our town forebearers.
The site’s new sod only enhanced the sad plight of women, men and children reinterred in a mass burial. The new headstone hides far more than it pretends to reveal: “[P]resumably slaves or former slaves. Others were of European* and Asian* descent.” (*Uncanny the certainty of such racial designations, which carefully excludes Native American remains.) At least field stones, “unmarked” as they may have been, were set into the living earth by loved ones determined to remember a child, a father, a grandmother, a friend; I’ve certainly never seen two field stones that looked the same.
Crafted doubts of uncertainties aside, these were people, by and large, claimed as property by wealthy white men—they knew who they were, keeping good accounts of their estates both for tax purposes, representation, speculation and legacies.
Let us comfort ourselves in the idea that the dead are not concerned with the affairs of our time––a view well represented at the gathering. But most people were drawn by the significance of this history––ours. They came, descendants of former slaves and former slave owners, thirsty to encounter history’s honest and liberating breath––an honest narrative, tragic and beautiful like the light that lingers in Winter’s western skyline.
The “ceremony” left me and others cold, while the muse offered the unsettling notion that people considered property in life, remain so in death. Athens and the University of Georgia have some real accounting to do. If done, they will at least find some debts of gratitude long in coming, and the “unknown” will not remain so.
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