Fun Times with the Dead

I can still recall the first day of class with professor Maxfield, and the deepening feeling of dread I had as I read and heard aloud of the service learning portion of the Western Traditions 2 course. Being socially introverted, the idea of going into the public and working with people in historical societies or various offices seemed daunting if not appalling to me. I enjoy working and studying hard to achieve a measure of success when it comes to academics, and as I generally dislike a vast majority of the world’s population the idea of working with them for fifteen hours just seemed like a disaster. But then the prospect of working with the dead came along, and my interest was piqued.

The Town Clerk’s office in Castile, NY is an office in a small town that is a ‘right to farm’ community. For the staff and resources that were available, they had a fairly efficient system of record for their deceased and the location of their remains. The first portion of my service learning was getting familiar with the older card catalogue system, and entering it into the database program to keep the records intact and in a new medium. This process afforded me literally hundreds of examples of what was good information to have, and what information was lacking. After speaking with the clerk at great length, I devised a way to organize the actual plots, and accurately and thoroughly take record of every possible piece of information on every head stone, and to measure the available space between plots.

With the assistance of another classmate, we had managed to accurately and thoroughly record more information than I had noticed on any of the cards I had previously entered into the computer. As we took note of the information on the headstones, I found myself irresistibly falling into the past and felt myself completely immersed in history.

The dates went well back into the early to mid-1800s and each one carried with it a story, or at least one inside my head. I wondered if the names on the stones had seen what I experience now in the classroom in a survey of history, and how it had actually been for them to witness it. Did they see the end of WWII? Was he able to see the moon landing? Had the railroads been invented yet? What did the landscape look like back then? These are just some of the questions I would play out in entirety in my head, all while I took careful note of the different branches of service in the military that the deceased had served and sometimes was given a glimpse of their beliefs and faith.

Christian iconography, as well as Masonic symbols was present in abundance amongst the earlier dated tombstones. Something peculiar began to appear regularly, an upright star with the letters O.E.S. engraved on the three bottom sides of the star. As the star began to appear in more and more abundance, I took notice that the high number of incidences that the star appeared, they were all female, and almost all accompanied a male Masonic symbol from their husbands.

For just a dreadful service learning project, I was now involved fully and was even going to do extra research with the clerk who I talked about the findings to. What we found on the Order of the Eastern Star, was not important. What was important was the affinity that I have found with working in the field of history, and taking from a potentially awful experience a great life lesson and experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

By Cory J. Green

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About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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