A black cat lounging on the prone grave of William Edmund Strayhorn in the Old Town Cemetery in Hillsborough North Carolina.
The Old Town Cemetery (“old” being a distinguishing moniker, as there is a “new” town cemetery started in the last days of the American Civil War, 6 blocks up the street) lies on the most central of the lots in the Hillsborough laid out in survey by Claude J. Sauthier in 1768 (Lot 98 on the map). The cemetery dates to 1757 when a Church of England was built here. The current Presbytarian Church on this lot was built in 1814 after the previous church was destroyed by fire.
The cemetery starts at the front of the church, on the Tryon Street side, and snakes around the church building in an “L” shape, ending on the Churton Street side of the lot. Where as the graves in the churchyard are closely placed in the oldest part, the above grave sits by itself in the side yard, maybe because the date of the stone’s erection was near the end of the burial dates; the “new” town cemetery beginning just 10 years later.
The grave is one of a type I find the most interesting, and heartbreaking. The grave of a child. These graves exist in all the old cemeteries I have visited all over North Carolina. Life in the times of these cemeteries were not free from sickness and disease, a benefit we take for granted today. Sometimes the graves are easy to spot, a small rectangle stone with a stone lamb resting on its top. Or a small, cherubic angel in the lamb’s place; its face looking down in somber reflection, a look that always reminds me of my looking down at the floor when a prayer is said in a church.
Other times I have found many graves in one spot, lined up like dominoes as physical proof of a man and woman’s immense grief. In the Howard Street churchyard on Ocracoke Island in North Carolina lie 17 small stones, with just the initials of a child and the years of birth and death (1833-1835, 1834-1834, etc.), laying beside two larger monuments. Those of the parents of these 17 children, none who made it past the age of 5.
The stone in the Hillsborough churchyard of William Edmund Strayhorn is raised above ground, and is much larger than most graves nearby, a sign of his parent’s wealth relative to others in the Hillsborough of the 1850’s. Though I estimate their wealth meant nothing that day, just 5 days before Christmas in 1852, when they lost their son forever. William was an Easter baby, born April 19th the year before. In a time devoid of air-conditioning and television, when people actually spent time outside and worked daily to promote their familiy’s well-being, he must have been a wonderful sign; of birth and the Spring season, and of the resurrection of Jesus, for which Easter is celebrated.
But just a year later, William passed away the day before Winter began. A cold, black time in the North Carolina Piedmont, not a leaf on a tree. And, when many were celebrating the birth of the savior they believed in, Jesus Christ, William’s mother and father were trying to cope with their child’s loss. Twenty months and a day old. A toddler. A big, goofy toddler, learning how to walk, and full of laughter and tears.
The photograph was made on an August Saturday night. My family was out of town, and in a rare free moment, I walked around Hillsborough, the town in which I was born and raised, making photographs until dark. There were few people about, it being the time of year when most people seem to be at the beach. After an hour or so, I noticed a black cat was following me everywhere I went, like a dog. But, she did so at a distance, hiding most of the time. In the cemetery she made herself known to me, by jumping into the frame of my photograph of a grave, asking for attention of some kind. Her presence in my photograph was all the attention I gave.