“Born a Slave, Died a Free Man:” A Startling Discovery at St. Michael’s Cemetery

I chose to do the cemetery project for my service learning assignment this semester. This was the option that best fit my family’s and my life style. We are often over committed to different family and community events so we are constantly on the go. Well during the beginning of the semester and up through the fall I would find myself in Warsaw, NY. My wife’s family camps there so we are there quite often. It just made sense to take photos in the St. Michael cemetery; I mean if I’m going to be there all the time I might as well make it count toward a grade when given the opportunity right?

My wife, being the type of person that she is, decided it, my service learning project, could become a family activity. So we packed up our son grabbed a couple of extra batteries and set off to the cemetery. Once we arrived I was immediately discouraged. There were so many graves that I had no clue where to start. After a few deep breaths and a second to orient myself I went to the far end of the cemetery at the road and began to work my way back. Again another feeling of panic hit me. Every grave I came to was newer than the project called for. As I continued to search I lost more and more hope with every grave stone dated after 1920. Then suddenly my wife calls to me saying she found one. I checked it and it was indeed an eligible grave marker. And with that one, it seemed to have opened the Pandora’s Box of graves stones. Now it seemed there were too many grave stones to photograph. My wife ended up watching my son as he ran around finding sticks and rocks, which was nice because that was one less thing I had to worry about. It ended up taking two trips to the cemetery to complete the project.

Each trip took about three hours and I saw several very interesting head stones. There were way too many infant graves which was a sad reality of that time period. But of the interesting headstones I saw there were two that really stood out to me. The first one was a grave of a man that lived a very long life. On the bottom of the stone there was an inscription saying “Born a slave, Died a free man”. It instantly made me think of what it had to have been like to have the life of this man. It clearly started out as a difficult life but I’m sure that he also experienced immense happiness during his life as well. To go from “a piece of property” to a free man must have been an incredible experience. The other tomb stone that really stood out to me was a massive monument. I can’t remember the name on it but this man was a widower and he was buried with both wives. His first wife died very young, mid-twenties I think. But his second wife was around much longer before she died. I just found it strange that the three of them were all buried together. It made me think of what my wife would say about her being buried next to one of my previous girlfriends. I can hear it now…”you’re joking right? I am not spending the rest of eternity next to the woman you used to be with!” It made me chuckle to myself.

It was strange but after two days of taking pictures in the cemetery I seriously began to realize my own mortality. I started to think thinks like what really happens when you die? Is there really an afterlife or is it just a big black void for eternity while your body rots underground. What is the purpose of life… you know that type of thing. It made me uncomfortable at least for the remainder of the time there. Once I got in the car to go home I put it out of my mind. As the saying goes out of sight out of mind.

By Peter Flanagan

Peter is a veteran and student at GCC

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About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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