She climbs the shallow hill of the cemetery, walking slowly and carrying fresh flowers. At Plot C43, she spreads a blanket and sits. She talks to her parents in front of their headstone. She talks to her grandfather, buried just a few feet to the left. As always, she tries to talk to her great-grandfather, Halson Vashon Eagleson Sr.
But Vivian Bridgwaters doesn’t quite know where he rests beneath the ground.
H.V. Eagleson doesn’t have a headstone at Rose Hill Cemetery. He’s one of many members of the Eagleson family in C43 that aren’t marked, said Bridgwaters, his great-granddaughter. Bridgwaters knows they’re buried there. But without headstones, it’s hard to know exactly who she’s talking to sometimes.
Dignity in death isn’t universal, but it should be, the living say. Dignity can be embodied in a headstone, a memorial to a life and a remembrance for the family members still here to think of them. But this common decency hasn’t always been afforded to Black people like the Eaglesons. Disproportionately, minorities are buried without tombstones in the United States. Many financial and racist barriers often prevent Black people from obtaining the headstone — the dignity — their families desire.
“When you have monuments, it speaks to the relevance of the person, of their life, of their contribution, their legacy,” Bridgwaters said. “To have my great-grandfather’s monument would speak to not just the Black community — which it would be uplifting for as well — but for Bloomington as a whole.”
Face west from Plot C43 and only a few dozen yards away is a stone for a Negro League baseball star, recently added after 50 years without one. Turn to the east and there’s a Black Revolutionary War veteran who went centuries without a headstone. They are some of the few who’ve finally had remembrance afforded to them.
Most cemeteries have unmarked graves. Some have dozens, others hundreds. Old cemeteries like Rose Hill have sold almost every plot, yet have large swathes of open space. The families of the dead know their loved ones are buried there — tucked away beneath the ground without anything to remember their lives or their deaths.
Cemeteries are often crowded this time of year. The holiday season reunites families. It’s a time for celebration and happiness. But it’s a time for grieving, too.
And grieving is much harder when you know your loved one is buried with no marker.
No one knows exactly how many Black people are lying without a headstone across the country. It is a national problem, and in recent years many groups have found or dug up these unmarked graves.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the last year, archeologists and forensic scientists have found a total of 35 graves at a mass grave site in the Black portion of an Oklahoma cemetery. It is believed those in the grave, who had been left unmarked, were killed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.