By Melissa Dunson
MOUNT VERNON, Mo. — Ray Gene Richardson counts his friends in acres, making his acquaintances unique in that most have been dead for years.
A lifelong Mount Vernon resident, Richardson has spent a lifetime giving back to those who can no longer utter a “thank you.” His love for cemeteries and a desire to honor history have led him to a retirement not of relaxation, but years of moving brush and, at age 85, back-breaking concrete work.
Richardson estimates he’s worked on six cemeteries in Missouri, some that were almost lost and forgotten in a sea of weeds. He researches where local people are buried, finds the cemeteries, cleans away debris, digs up buried gravestones and repairs them. He said he gets his thanks from family members who’ve spent years searching for their ancestors’ graves, but he doesn’t do it for other people — his cemetery work is the result of a deep-seated belief that the past is crucial to the present. And what is history, if not a collection of the stories of the people who lived before?
“It makes you feel good to do something,” Richardson said. “A lot of people just live off the country and leave nothing.”
‘This is the history’
As he walks through the places he’s touched, like the Mount Vernon City Cemetery, where he repaired 42 tombstones, he talks about the people buried there as if they were alive, most with their own stories.
Pointing to a brown stone with barely a marking, Richardson said Aunt Taz, a jolly old African-American woman, is buried there. Next to her, grave markers without names represent two men who got into a fight and, after killing each other, were buried side by side. He said a tall, gray column represents the man who owned the first business in Mount Vernon. Walking past a group of stones bearing the last name Stroud, he said one belonged to one of the first sheriffs of Lawrence County. Another displaying the name Harris is supposedly the grave of the man who built the old jail house.
“This is the history of Mount Vernon,” Richardson said. “This cemetery’s full of history. I’ve dug up a lot of stories.”
Whether high-profile judges and sheriffs or paupers, Richardson treats them all alike in death. He wants to make sure everyone is remembered.
“I heard a pastor say one time that your tombstone has the date you were born, a dash and the date you died,” he said. “It’s what you do in that dash that counts. You and the rest of the world wouldn’t be here without (the dead) and (a tombstone) is the last thing we know about some of them.”
Richardson’s wife, Betty, has worked alongside him in the cemeteries since he started and she said the importance of honoring the dead was handed down to them by their parents.
“My parents always decorated cemeteries on Memorial Day all my life,” Betty Richardson said. “I just grew up respecting cemeteries.”
When he was a boy, Richardson said, his parents would drive him past the old Toliver Cemetery that was kept up. But he said when all the immediate relatives died, a field took over the spot and if he didn’t have the memory of driving past it all the time as a child, it might have been lost forever.
“If I hadn’t got in here, a lot of it would have been gone in a few years,” he said.
In another Mount Vernon yard, Richardson said he found the stone of a grave that had missing for years. He put the information on the Internet and helped reunite a great-great-grandson with his ancestor’s grave. Even though only one of the parties was still breathing, he said, he couldn’t help but feel like he helped bring a family closer together.
“I figured somebody would want to find him because he’d been lost for so long,” Richardson said. “The man had been trying to find (the grave) for the last 20 years.”
Besides cleaning away brush and repairing tombstones, he has also replatted the city cemetery and keeps information on who is buried where.
In his footsteps
While he looks young for his 85 years, Richardson’s frailty shows as he walks out of one of his beloved cemeteries and brushes his arm against the fence.
His skin tears and a spot of blood rushes to the opening. Richardson laughs, saying when you get old, your skin gets rotten.
The man who spends so much time with those already passed says he’s not afraid to die, he’s expecting it. But he doesn’t laugh when he thinks of all the graves he will never reach, his tired hands too worn to pull the same brush from the stones and says he has no one to take his place or hand down his knowledge to.
He has one son, who Richardson says is very interested in history and probably knows as much about restoring cemeteries as he does, but he lives in California. The other members of the cemetery committee are almost as old as Richardson and Betty, who say it will have to be the next generation to step up and decide if history is important to them, too.
Even if others agree to take on the task, Richardson gets quiet when he thinks about a future where he won’t be able to restore the cemeteries. He said he’s already had to cut back on his activity because his legs aren’t as strong as they once were.
But one part of the future he doesn’t have to worry about is his tombstone.
He’s already picked it out, had it made and now it sets in the Oddfellows Cemetery in Mount Vernon. He finds looking at his own tombstone funny and instead of any epitaph, Richardson’s stone simply lists the date of birth for both he and his wife and the year they were married.
He leaves no words to his legacy, just a set of ham radio call letters he and his wife use and an etching of a radio antennae.
“I love this,” Richardson said motioning to the other stones. “It’s going to hurt because I can’t do it anymore.”
Melissa Dunson writes for The Joplin (Mo.) Globe.