History is all around us and you can find it in the most unusual places. I tend to find myself in the cemetery at least once a year—usually in the late spring. I am not sure if it is because of Memorial Day and the ceremonies I usually attend or if the spring season just brings about thoughts of life in general. Many people find cemeteries to be depressing, including one of my siblings. I find them to be comforting and, yes, interesting.

My cemetery visits always take me to Mother of God Cemetery in Covington. This is not by chance—I can find six generations of my father’s family and five of my mother’s within easy walking distance, many times very near each other or just across the road. This is not unusual in Northern Kentucky where many families settled in the region and tended to stay put.

These visits always start at the resting place of my mom who passed away a few years ago. I feel a little closer to her there and it is a good opportunity to dust the headstone—Mom was always vigilant against dust! A few feet to the right are her in-laws, my paternal grandparents.

Not too far down the road I start following the family tree, my maternal grandparents, six great grandparents and multiple members of two previous generations—the earliest born in 1805 in Lohne, Germany, before Germany even existed as a nation. A number of these individuals were my immigrant ancestors. I often think about the hardships they faced, coming to a new land across the Atlantic on a sailing ship to a land where they didn’t understand the customs or the language. The courage they must have had. It is also a demonstration of the importance of family. They wanted to come to the United States to make a better life for their children. The United States offered so many possibilities and these possibilities outweighed the risks for them.

One such immigrant ancestor was my maternal great-grandmother (buried in a nearby cemetery). She came to this country in 1871 as an 18-year-old with her father, mother and siblings. She could not speak English. She ended up marrying an American of German descent and became the mother of five children—the youngest being my grandfather. She lost her husband but still managed to take care of her family and become successful under her own terms. She made a good living as a sought-after midwife and was present at the delivery of hundreds of Covingtonians. Before her death, she owned her own home and was able to help all of her children make down payments on their first homes. She was a tough, stern and determined woman to say the least. 

Visiting the cemetery also reminds me about the importance of community. The next time you visit a loved-one’s resting site, look at the nearby headstones. You may be surprised how many of the names you recognize. Generations of Northern Kentuckians lived near one another, went to school with each other, attended the same churches and worked in the same companies. The three northern counties in Kentucky have a combined population of 385,000 residents. However, we have managed to maintain a small community feel with strong communities and organizations that draw people together. You might be surprised, with a little research, to find that quite of few of these people are distant relatives.

Cemeteries are also a good reminder to all of us to do good in this world while we are still here. Walking around the cemetery I am amazed at how much money people spend on grave markers. Towering obelisks, life-sized statues and polished granite. Memorials to lives well lived or monuments to guilt put up by grown children who have regrets. Regardless, grave markers stand as sentinels over those who have gone before us. Charles de Gaulle left us with a great reminder when he said, “Don’t think of yourself as indispensable or infallible. The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” I think the point de Gaulle was making is that in the end we are all equal, because we will all end up in the same place.

Cemeteries remind me of past lives—mostly lived well. These sacred places are testament to the fact that it is not our wealth or our position in life that make a difference, but what we did with the lives and time we were given. We all have a history to make each and every day. Make the best of it, so that someday in the future when someone visits your final resting place they can say you made a difference in this world. 

Dave Schroeder is the executive director of the Kenton County Public Library. He serves on many regional and state boards including Friends of the Kentucky Public Archives and the Northern Kentucky Education Council.

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