At first, I thought maybe she’d looked in the wrong Little Vine Cemetery. There’s one in Walker County northwest of Birmingham, another northeast of Cullman, and a third in south Alabama. I also knew that older grave shelters—above grade structures that cover below grade burials—often fall down and get cleaned away. But the Kelly Grave Shelter was built in 2009, so that fate seemed unlikely. Had there been a tornado I’d not heard about?
By this time, my manuscript had gone through editing and my low-resolution image of the Kelly Grave Shelter had been deleted, so I gave up efforts to contact the cemetery stewards. Then, the summer issue arrived in the mail, and I discovered that the editors and talented designer, Robin McDonald, had managed to include my photo of a detail of the Kelly Grave Shelter.
So, I decided to mail a copy of the magazine with a short note asking about the disappearance of the grave shelter to the address on the sign. I included a small check for the cemetery maintenance fund. The US Postal Service promptly returned the package. “Forwarding Order Expired.” But the USPS included the forwarding address. (Go figure.) I annotated my note, put the stuff in a clean envelope, and sent it off to the new address—with a silent prayer.
Days later I got a call on my cell from an Alabama phone number that neither my phone nor I recognized. Still, I answered the phone, expecting another offer of an unsolicited car warranty. To my surprise, it was the cemetery steward, Jack Westbrook! He thanked me profusely for my contribution to the cemetery fund.
Then, I asked what happened to the Kelly Grave Shelter. “Well,” he explained, “when old Mr. Kelly died in 2009, his son built the structure so his mother would have a place to sit next to her husband’s grave.” Westbrook said the son knew he was building on his mother’s gravesite, so when she died recently, he took down the structure so she could be buried.
At that point I realized what a mistake I’d made. The two-legged “grave shelter” I’d cited in my article for the clear sentiment of familial love and longing that is inscribed on the structure with felt-tipped pens was not really a grave shelter at all. It was not built to protect the grave but rather for the convenience of a mourner, Mr. Kelly’s widow. In fact, the structure was what I call a mourner’s bench. I’ve seen a few other such hand-crafted structures in rural Alabama cemeteries, like the Hill Family gravesite seen here.
Now I know better. And now I’ve confessed my initial confusion. Please consider this my official “correction” to my AH essay. And please let me know if you know of things you think may be grave shelters, or mourners’ benches, in Alabama cemeteries. My research on those topics continues.
Read more about Panhorst's article on "Alabama Grave Shelters" in our Issue 141! Click the link to start reading: