I haven’t posted a book review in a little while, so I thought I would review this month’s AGS book club pick: Tales and Tombstones of Sunset Cemetery: Tracing Lives and Memorial Customs in a Southern Graveyard by June Hadden Hobbs and Joe DePriest. Having just come out this year, 2022, this book takes a look specifically at the stories and tombstones of those buried in Sunset Cemetery in Shelby, North Carolina. Here is the book synopsis:
“This book relates the stories of the people buried in Shelby, North Carolina’s historic Sunset Cemetery, a microcosm of the Southeastern United States. The authors, an academic and a journalist, detail the lives and memories of people who are buried here, from Civil War soldiers to those who created the Jim Crow South and promoted the narrative of the Lost Cause. Featured are authors W.J. Cash and Thomas Dixon, whose racist novel was the basis for The Birth of a Nation. Drawn from historical research and local memory, it includes the tales of musicians Don Gibson and Bobby Pepper Head London, as well as a paratrooper who died in the Battle of the Bulge and other ordinary folks who rest in the cemetery. A bigger responsibility is to give a voice to the silenced, enslaved people of color buried in unmarked graves. Cemeteries are sacred places where artistry and memory meet–to understand, we need both the tales and the tombstones.” – Goodreads
I enjoyed this book. Although I have never visited this cemetery in person, I feel like I have spent many hours walking among its stones. This book is very well written and the photos by Hal Bryant that accompany the stories are beautiful. What I found really interesting about this book is that it’s almost like 2 books in one. One is a journalistic look at the stories of the people behind, or should I say beneath the tombstones. This storytelling dives deep into the history of Shelby and its residents, painting a bright and sometimes dark picture of life there and its community members. The second is a look through the lens of gravestone studies, examining the tombstones themselves; looking at the different types of monuments, the symbolism chosen for the stones, and how different time periods would reflect those choices. When visiting a cemetery we often don’t know who the people are, that the tombstones represent. This book sheds light on the diverse cross-section of stories that are buried beneath the tombstones.
I read this book in early April when my local cemeteries were still covered in snow. I loved being able to “walk” around Sunset Cemetery via this book. This would be a great read for those looking to cemetery travel, without actually traveling. This book touches on many interesting facets of history, accompanied by beautiful tombstone photos that accent the storytelling. Because of this, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in gravestones, history, or good storytelling.
Have you read this book? Have you visited Sunset Cemetery? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks for reading!