By Riley Manning
Mike Carpenter of Ingram Baptist Church in Baldwyn has a unique job in the church. He and a few other members make up a small committee in charge of caring for and managing Ingram’s cemetery, located on about an acre of space just behind the church.
Lots of country churches, he said, still make full use of their graveyards.
“Lord, I couldn’t tell you how many people are buried out here,” Carpenter said. “Some of them are unmarked. When I went to pick out my own plot, I was told by a few older people there might already be someone buried there.”
The committee has been in operation for two years, Carpenter said. Last year, during the summer, they plotted off the graves and mapped out future graves for church members to claim. They buried metal pins on unused plots that can be found with a metal detector. The church used to pay someone to mow, but now that kind of upkeep is done on a volunteer basis by church members. Carpenter, retired from the National Guard, cleans up every Wednesday morning during the summer.
“It probably gets more visitors than I realize,” Carpenter said. “Especially around Veteran’s Day. I’ll show up and the flowers will have changed. Some people will have put out little flags.”
Carpenter’s history with Ingram is typical of those who grow up in rural congregations. He grew up at Ingram Baptist Church, and though he has a few relatives buried there, his own parents rest in the cemetery of nearby Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. Mt. Olive Baptist Church and Lebanon United Methodist, other churches nearby, have similar graveyards.
“You know, back when they used to form a town, the church was the first thing they would build. Families didn’t move around so much,” Carpenter said. “Generations of the same family are buried here, and that’s a testament to them and the church.”
Things are a little different now. Carpenter’s son lives in Alabama, and he described his daughter as a rolling stone.
“I’ll be buried here,” Carpenter said with confidence, looking out over the stones.
Some of them have the gloss of newness, their engravings still sharp-edged against the elements. Others bear the streaks of time, the smaller ones like strange white teeth sticking out of the ground.
Carpenter and the committee take their duties seriously, he said. The cemetery helps keep the stories and lessons from the faithful departed alive, even when they aren’t pleasant. Carpenter pointed to a grave in the back corner outfitted with an angel made of wire.
“A young lady in the church was going to have a baby, but they told her it wouldn’t live. She chose to carry it full term, which I admire,” Carpenter said. “When it was born, it lived a whole hour. They got to hold it. Lots of times words don’t really help, you know? You can’t really tell someone you know how they feel in a situation like that.”
The cemetery is as much a part of the church’s identity as anything else. Every person buried there, he said, deserves respect.
Ken Houston serves on the cemetery committee for Oak Hill United Methodist Church, a century-old church in Saltillo. Like Carpenter, he grew up attending Oak Hill, and plans to “be there ‘til (he) ain’t.”
Oak Hill’s graveyard started as a community graveyard. Before burials and tombstones became so expensive, he said, most of a community’s dead were laid to rest at the church cemetery.
“It’s been here through three church buildings,” Houston said. “Lots of people from the community who didn’t necessarily go to the church are buried here. One section used to be a place for the nursing home to bury people who had no family to take care of the arrangements.”
Carpenter and Houston said the actual digging of the grave is provided by the funeral home. Oak Hill pays a landscaping service to mow. In August, the church holds a memorial day to honor past church members, and people come from great distances to pay their respects.
“Lots of mothers and grandmothers buried here,” Houston said. “For a lot of people, being buried at the church they grew up in is to bring things full circle. There’s just something about an old country church, something you just keep coming back to.”