Numbered Souls

All Souls’ Day: the one I don’t have to go to Church for, as opposed to All Saints’ Day. I’ve never quite shaken that childhood view. I take more note of the day than I did as a child; that comes with time and age and enduring the deaths of friends and loved ones.

I find myself saying brief silent prayers when I pass a cemetery. There’s no superstition or fear involved. It’s commending souls to God – I once thought that an odd phrase, but no longer. I even do it when the burial ground reveals no names.

There’s a small cemetery in a mildly improbable place along a rail trail near my house. It’s behind the county office complex, on the other side of what used to be a rail line. The other side of the tracks, literally, kept from view of the nearby busy road by the office buildings.

It’s a tidy place. There are weathered markers with numbers but no names. The grass around the markers is mown, but there’s no landscaping. There’s a flagpole. There’s a not-very-informative plaque, placed in 2001, obviously long after the cemetery was established. A newer sign, erected by trail supporters with a donation from AARP, gives a little more history.

The cemetery’s location is a clue to its history: on county land, near county offices, near where a prison used to be. A friend with some knowledge of local history, plus a bit of online searching, told me a little more about it.

Everyone buried there was a county ward of some sort: a prisoner, a nursing home resident, an indigent person. The cemetery being small, markers had to be small as well, without expensive carving. The markers were simply numbered, and a ledger maintained in the county offices noted the names of each deceased next to the number of the grave.

One ledger, no backup. It was lost or destroyed, perhaps in a fire. The names were lost.

Each person had a name, a family, a story. Now, God only knows who they were. They have no one to pray for them, except the odd passer-by like me.

While rambling on New Hampshire trails, I’ve come across old family cemeteries with stones lovingly inscribed with names, dates, and images. There might be nothing left of a homestead but a cellar hole, but the family graveyard was made to last, and the names were meant to be remembered.

There was no such heritage for county wards. So spare them a thought and an All Souls’ prayer. Add a little prayer of thanksgiving for the county worker who keeps their resting place tidy. It’s a kind of respectful mercy, and there’s grace in that.

Open Book, October 2016

The first Wednesday of each month brings #OpenBook, a blog linkup co-hosted by My Scribbler’s Heart and with a roundup of what participating bloggers have been reading lately. 

Theodore Rex was as good as its early chapters promised. I’m impatiently waiting for a copy of Colonel Roosevelt, volume three of this Theodore Roosevelt biography written by Edmund Morris.

I’m fortunate to live only a few minutes away from the offices of Sophia Institute Press, with its extensive catalog of Catholic books. One of their titles recently caught my eye: Christianity, Democracy, and the American Ideal – a particularly timely topic. I’ll be reading it through most of this month, resolutely ignoring as many political-campaign phone calls as possible. (Are voters in every state assaulted with so many calls? New Hampshire only has four electoral votes. Lord have mercy on the bigger swing states.) The book is a selection of writings by Jacques Maritain, edited by James P. Kelly III, exploring the theme of how Christianity and responsible citizenship go together. This is a welcome subject to me, in the age of personally-opposed-but.

Stark Decency deserves greater fame. New Hampshire readers like me can find it in any local bookstore or library shelf, while the rest of you must trust to online sources. Allen V. Koop’s book about a World War II prison camp in New Hampshire reveals a bit of American history little-known outside my Granite State. In 1944, German POWs were sent to the small upstate town of Stark to cut pulpwood for a local paper mill that faced wartime production demands.In an unlikely place and an unlikely situation, friendships developed between some prisoners and guards, and later between prisoners and townspeople. Koop sets out the story in just over 120 pages, ending with an account of a 1986 reunion at which five former POWs returned to Stark for a celebration of friendship and peace. “Camp Stark did more for people and peace than for pulpwood,” he notes. I love the book’s calm and undramatic style, which suits the story.

While motoring in the north country on New Hampshire highway 110, I once came across the state’s historical marker describing the camp. I’m glad the marker is there, and I’m glad Allen V. Koop wrote the story of what’s behind it.


Marker in Stark, New Hampshire. Photo by Ellen Kolb.

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