Monthly Archives: July 2014

Oldest town in Missouri

This month, we had a chance to visit Ste. Genevieve, billed as the “Oldest Town in Missouri.”  It may well be.  The original town was founded ca. 1735, but was washed away by a flood in 1785.  At that time, the town was moved to its current location.  The oldest structure still standing in town is from 1790.

The French history of Missouri is on display in town, from the artifacts in the small museum, to the use of the fleur de lis everywhere, to the language on the tombstones.  Here is just one example.


If you can read French, ponder this stone, and let me know if you can translate it.  I have a shaky knowledge of German, but not of French.

Ste. Genevieve offers more than some interesting epitaphs — of the five known examples of French Colonial vertical log construction in the United States, three are in town.  The town also boasts many small shops and restaurants.  We always make a point to eat at the Anvil because their onion rings are the best.

In fact, here’s me with an onion ring.



If you travel around the area to the town of Kaskaskia, you can also find the Liberty Bell of the West, which was rung on July 4, 1778, to commemorate the capture of the town from the British by George Rogers Clark. Though you might not realize that this area of the United States played a part in the Revolutionary War, it did. The western side of the river was under Spanish control, but everything east of the Mississippi was claimed by Britain, even though most of the residents were French.  Today, the river’s course has moved east so that Kaskaskia is accessible by road from Ste. Genevieve without crossing the river.  It is, in fact, a tiny of slice of Illinois on the Missouri side of the Mississippi.

But for the taphophile, the cemetery is the main draw.  It’s small but well-maintained and offers plenty of shade and intriguing stones.  It’s just a little interesting slice of early French-American life and, of course, death.


An impossible silence

Last week, my husband and I watched the movie The Awakening, which takes place in Britain in 1921. Although it’s a ghost story, it’s more atmospheric than creepy  One of the most interesting things about it, though, didn’t really become explicit until we watched the DVD extras.  In it, Juliet Nicolson, author of The Great Silence, mentions that, during World War I, the British government made the decision not to ship bodies home because the sheer quantity of fatalities made the logistics too difficult. Those who died were buried near where they fell, assuming their bodies could be found at all. This made the emotional states of the movie’s characters come into much sharper focus, because it clearly showed why they were stuck emotionally, unable to move on after the war (“we’re ghosts of ourselves,” one of the characters says).  The movie’s ghost itself is real, and not just a trick of the mind, but what makes him visible is the unbearable psychological toll the war has taken on the living characters — a toll that frequently threatens to break them, but which they do not speak about.

I realized, in 1921, Britain was a nation that had not been able to complete the rites of passage for the ones they had lost.

Significant milestones in someone’s life (including their death), are generally dealt with by family, friends, and society as a whole by rites of passage.  Rites of passage are often divided into three stages: rites of separation, rites of transition, and rites of incorporation.

Rites of separation begin the process by severing the individual from their previous identity. Shaving of the hair when entering the military would be one of the more obvious examples.  Rites of transition are those that take place while the individual is neither one thing nor another.  In the case of death, this time would be between the bodily death of the individual and their social death.  Rites of incorporation, such as burial, complete the individual’s new identity.  Without rites of incorporation, the individual never truly finishes their journey through the rite of passage, nor does anyone else.  A husband may officially be listed as killed in action, but without a body to bury, his spouse remains, psychologically and even socially, in a liminal state — not quite wife, but not quite a widow, either.

Britain in 1921 had over three quarters of a million dead whose families and friends had not been able to steer their way through this rending rite of passage.  An entire nation reeled under the weight of the unincorporated dead, which kept the end of the war from being quite the celebration everyone had assumed it would be.  Nicolsen quotes one person as saying, “I think it [peacetime] will require more courage than anything that has gone before. …One will at last fully recognize that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war.”

Slowly, Britain stumbled through at least some healing.  The first anniversary of the end of hostilities was met with two minutes of silence across the entire country.  The second anniversary was used to place an unidentified soldier’s body in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.  By finally having at least one burial to stand for all the rest, the British began to find a way forward, out from underneath their “great silence.”