Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tombstone Tuesday: A different take: graves without tombstones

Those of us interested in family history seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries looking for family graves; so, what do you do when you find the grave, but it is unmarked? This is the case with my maternal grandmother and grandfather. At first I considered not talking about their graves. There are no grave markers, so perhaps it would be best to leave them out, I thought. How can I write about them on Tombstone Tuesday when there is no tombstone about which to write?

Although there is no headstone standing over the graves in which each one is interred, I want them to be remembered, I want them to be thought about; therefore, their graves are the subject of this Tombstone Tuesday. The unmarked graves of my maternal grandmother, Mary Fitzpatrick Ball, and my maternal grandfather, Patrick Ball, are in The Prospect Cemetery at Glasnevin — popularly known simply as Glasnevin Cemetery — in Dublin, Ireland.

Despite the fact that gravestones in Glasnevin Cemetery usually have numbers engraved on the back of them, I had some difficulty finding the graves in which my maternal grandparents are interred. First, I asked at the desk inside the beautiful new visitors' centre at Glasnevin. Already armed with the exact grave numbers and a map of the cemetery, I wanted to ensure that I knew precisely where I was going. The helpful man at the front desk said, "Just follow the road this way to the Dublin Section East and then curve a little to the left, just so, and you'll find your granddad's grave. Your grandmother's plot is a lot further back, in the Garden Section. It will be a little more difficult to find, but just stay on the path, follow the map, and you'll get there".

My grandfather's grave was the first on the map. As I was looking in the section of the cemetery in which the grave is located, out of the blue an elderly gentleman came up the path. He asked me if I was alright, and I told him I was having trouble locating my grandfather's grave, so he helped me, and he found the grave. The look on my face must have given away my discomfort over the fact that the grave is unmarked. Before this gentleman had come down the path, I had noticed this patch of green, and it seemed to correspond to the grave number, but I just couldn't bring myself to accept that this unmarked area next to the road was my grandfather's grave. This man, who had been a stranger on the path, reassured me and said I shouldn't be embarrassed, that it is okay. Like my grandfather, many people in Glasnevin, and elsewhere, are buried in unmarked graves.

The green patch next to the curb marks the grave of Patrick Ball, my maternal grandfather

Patrick Ball died when I was a very young child. I did not cry the night my grandfather died — perhaps because I was far too young to understand the profound effect this loss would have on my mother — but I have a clear recollection of my mother and my Aunt Bernadette as inconsolable. Seated with my father and my uncle at a tiny table in the kitchen of my aunt's small apartment, I felt a kind of heaviness settle in over that once bright little room. I did not understand those feelings until I stood at the curb by the side of my grandfather's grave. With the loss of my own father in 2000, I now had something in common with my mother and my aunt. Now I could understand the loss they felt that day when I was a very young child. In Glasnevin those feelings came rushing back to me, and I sat on the curb, next to his grave, sat and wept for a man I had never known, my grandfather.

After I had taken dozens of photos of this unmarked ground from many different angles, I moved on to find my grandmother's grave. Mary Fitzpatrick Ball's grave is much further back in the cemetery. She died when my mother was five years old, so she is in a much older part of the cemetery. Despite that, I was able to find my grandmother's grave much more easily. There is a marker next to her unmarked grave bearing the number 80.5 and her grave is number 81.5. A beautiful tree stands close by. Although it was not planted for her, I decided it was Mary's tree. It seemed to me as though this beautiful tree at the foot of her unmarked grave served to mark it in a way, and so I did not feel so disconsolate standing there. Whispering a little prayer, I assured her that neither she nor my grandfather would ever be forgotten. I felt as though, in the rustling of the leaves in that tree, I heard from my grandmother, heard her acknowledge my promise to never forget, and I left the cemetery feeling a little better.

Mary's tree stands at the foot of her unmarked grave.

*Click on photos to view a larger version.
©Copyright J.Geraghty-Gorman


  1. What a wonderful post. Paying tribute on Tombstone Tuesday to a stoneless couple. Beautifully written, and I felt the tears well up as well, reading your response to your grandfather Patrick's unmarked resting place.

  2. What a touching tribute to your grandparents. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi Carol and Michelle, thank you so much for your comments. I really appreciate them. Cheers! Jennifer

  4. Thanks for a moving post, Jennifer. So many folk are buried in unmarked graves, but often there is paperwork to identify the plot. Well done!

  5. Hi Jo, thanks for your comments. It's nice to hear from you. Cheers! Jennifer

  6. Wonderfully moving post! Thank you for showing me the way to remember those who are "markerless".

  7. What a wonderful post. I have many stoneless graves in my own family. I never thought I could write about them on Tombstone Tuesday but you just showed me that I can. Thank you for showing me and others the way.

  8. This post is very close to my heart. I have so many in my family that are in unmarked graves or that I don't know where they are buried. It makes our own existence meaningful that we don't let them be forgotten.

  9. Thank you so for pointing back to this post at year's end. It is an extraordinary piece, especially for those of us whose families were too poor to buy headstones or where the stones have vanished.


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Cheers, Jennifer

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