Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

April 14, 2002


Old gravestone hauled away from cemetery in broad daylight


            Weathered by the years, the old gravestone was a sorry sight. The crevices of the engraved letters were darkened, filled with almost 46 years of dust and grime.

            An army of ants had made a home beside and underneath the stone. They scattered as I kicked the top of the sandy bed away in disgust. To make matters worse, the left side of the tombstone had sunk into the ground several inches so that it was no longer level.

My son Steve and I had gone by the cemetery to straighten up the stone, thinking that all we needed to do was to add a little dirt to level it. We stared at the scene, neither of us saying a word, but both of us realizing that something had to be done.

Steve said, “Dad, we need to pressure wash this stone, and I have a pressure washer at home.” I agreed and assumed we would go get his pressure washer and bring it to the cemetery. A water faucet was only 40 feet away.

But Steve had another idea. He is a big, strong man, in the prime of life. With his hands he pulled the headstone over on its side and said, “I believe we can put it in the back of my pick-up.”

My first thought was my back. My second thought was Steve’s back. I reminded him how easy it would be for both of us to hurt ourselves. “I don’t want my back to hurt me for the next three weeks,” I told him.

He agreed but appeared determined to see if we could lift the stone into his truck. He backed the truck close to the big block of marble and said, “Let’s load it.”

I looked around to see if the guardians of the old Wetumpka cemetery were looking. Was it illegal to do this, I wondered? I remembered that the cemetery was off limits after dark when I was a child. I made sure I saw no one watching before I stooped over to help lift the tombstone. Still I was nervous. In 70 years I had never robbed a headstone from a cemetery.

Somehow we managed to load the stone in his truck. I quickly closed the gate to hide it from view as much as possible. We agreed that it must weigh over 300 pounds. For a brief moment we wondered why on earth we had done such a foolish thing.

Then we made a plan. We would bring back a sack of quick-setting concrete and build a pad for the gravestone to sit on. We would also put out some ant poison that, if nothing else, would cause the ants to move to another location. We would clean the stone with Steve’s pressure washer to restore its original beauty.

“After we fix it we can take a picture of it with my digital camera,” Steve said. “You can share it with all the family by e-mail.” I thought that a good idea.

Then another idea popped into my mind. When I was born, my dad had gone into the woods behind our house and picked some wild Easter lilies. He put them in a fruit jar beside the bed. At least that is what my mother told me later that he had done.

Now our son Steve owns the old house and the land in the back where wild Easter lilies still grow. I knew immediately that I would have to dig some up and plant them beside that headstone.

Steve reminded me that the lilies would not live in the hot sun of the cemetery. They require a lot of shade, which they have in the woods. “They will live long enough for us to take a picture of them beside this headstone which will look like new after we wash it,” I said. He agreed.

We left the cemetery feeling a little like thieves. We had not robbed a grave but we had taken a tombstone. Steve drove slowly through town, past the police station, both of us pondering what explanation we would give if we were stopped. No one gave us a second glance.

I rationalized what we had done. After all, it was my own son’s body beneath that sod. That gravestone belonged to our family. My wife and I had bought and paid for it. We had put it there and we could remove it if we chose. So really what we were doing was nobody’s business; it was strictly our business.

That afternoon we washed the gravestone. Cleaning it was not easy. Pressure washing it was not enough. We used several cleansers and dish scrubbers. We realized we should have found out what works best to clean headstones.

But our plan worked. We restored the beauty of that gravestone. We replaced it on a concrete pad. We planted the wild lilies on each side. We got some good pictures with Steve’s camera. The lilies will not last, of course. But for a moment they served a good purpose.

Our tombstone looks better now. Our son was the first to be buried there, in a family plot designed for eight graves. Years later my sister Margie’s husband, John Flomer, was buried there. It is hard to believe John has been dead for 12 years.

In recent years my parents were buried there as well. Four places remain, though it is understood that one of those is reserved for Margie so she can be buried beside John. My dad bought the plot more than 50 years ago and always said that they were available to family members on a first come, first served basis.

Our plot is easy to find. It is near the spot where the large American flag flies daily. There you can find the heavy marble gravestone which Steve and I cleaned on April 4th. The words are easy to read now:

“David Walter, son of Walter & Eudene Albritton, born April 18, 1953, died May 17, 1956.” Underneath those words there is engraved a small lamb, below which are engraved the words, “Jesus Loves Me.”

David was only a child when he died, but we have been comforted all these years by the confidence that he did know that Jesus loved him. In the final analysis that is the most important thing any of us can ever know – that Jesus loves us.

I know that David is not underneath that gravestone. Only his decayed body lies there. The beautiful, lively person we knew for three years is alive in a new body in the Father’s House. His mom, and his brother Steve, knows where David is. Our whole family knows.

But still it made us feel better to fix up his tombstone. Perhaps it is our way of saying we still remember with deep gratitude the precious little boy God allowed us to love for a little while. Perhaps, too, someone who has lost a child will chance to read on David’s tombstone the words, “Jesus Loves Me,” and be comforted by them.

That, like so many things, we must leave to God.