The Unknown Story


Drawing me back again and again, the Fayetteville National Cemetery continues to capture my imagination. Today’s visit with a student revealed a memorial stone of a different pattern; in a sea of rounded rectangles set on their ends, the cross caught her eye.

Wandering through the cemetery, I began thinking about those things that stay hidden until they are finally revealed or lost to history forever.

The stones of the Unknown Solders are a puzzle to me. What lies beneath? Bones of those unidentified or just commemorating those that didn’t come home? Would not forensic science be able to identify them now? If they had not come home, would not their names at least be etched on the stones put there to remember them? Possibly they died in a POW camp, but why not at least a name on the plaque? Some stones had names but no dates or service record, just a simple name, sometimes just one. I will find out from the caretaker soon.

An earlier post under Photography Tips, “Telling a story with photos from a cemetery visit” (the cemetery across the fence from the National Cemetery), shows a photo of a chunk of a tombstone with just the name Rowena engraved. The edges are worn smooth and it lies amongst the dry leaves and brown grass of the last of winter’s leavings. Then I found Annie. Another mystery.¬†Today, I went back to that cemetery and found Rowena’s stone again. This time she was dressed with spring’s beauty.

I want to know Rowena and Annie. I want to know more than how their stones look in the dressings of the changing seasons. Who were they? When were they born? Why just one name? What happened to the rest of their stones? My imagination goes to a place filled in by stories of slavery, when slaves didn’t even know their birth dates nor were they allowed to keep the names that they were known by before their capture.

From behind the fence of the National Cemetery I saw a woman sitting in this old cemetery, in front of a fresh grave. She was just sitting there smoking, looking at the brown earth that was still showing, not yet grown over completely. Upon arriving on the other side she was gone and we looked to see who she was visiting. It was a young man, 23 years old; she had been gazing at the photo of the young man on the funeral home marker–maybe her son. ¬†She nodded yes when I motioned from across the fence if I could take her photo. She had the saddest smile.

Unknown soldiers, Rowenas, Annies, and sad faced women sitting in the grass before a grave smoking long cigarettes, all have their stories to tell. You would think by now we would have heard all the stories there are to tell. And we probably have heard versions of all the stories in the world. But the face of the story changes with the telling–each face invested personally in their story and the humanity of it draws us in.



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