My mother left behind a faded picture of her grandparents’ headstone with a note on the back, “North Merchistan Cemetery, Edinburgh, Scotland.” I could barely make out the names on the headstone, Hugh Simmers and Marion Murray. But it was impossible to read their dates of birth and death, which of course would be vital in tracing their ancestors. Though doubtful, maybe another name was listed on the headstone.
In the summer of 2017, I finally got a chance to visit the cemetery, armed with the fading piece of photographic evidence. Online postings had warned that the burial grounds hadn’t been maintained. Vandals, presumably on a drunken spree, had tipped some headstones. The city, which had taken over the cemetery, had knocked over others. Their rationale: the headstones were in danger of falling on people wandering in the grave yard.
I had no idea just how many headstones were toppled until I arrived to see the carnage. At least half the headstones were flat on the ground. This put the odds of my finding my great grandparents’ stone at less than 50 percent. It was depressing to walk the densely wooded, overgrown cemetery. People leave a marker so that future generations can find them. Someone thought so little of this motivation that they pushed over the gravestone — face down, so that no one could read it. At least the city left the headstones they pushed over face up.
The photo provided scant clues. Behind my relatives’ headstone it showed what looked like a large obelisk and a white building in the background.The Simmers grave looked relatively large in the picture, but that could have been the result of the camera lens or angle. The headstone had a distinctive shape — small shoulders at the top that created the impression of a cross. I walked the rows searching for one of similar shape with the markers in the background.
After more than an hour of searching — some graves were so overgrown with bushes and weeds that they couldn’t be read even standing up — I finally gave up. The best approach would be to figure out whether a record of the burial plot still existed. Just then, a woman entered the graveyard to walk her dog. I asked whether the church across the street might have records. “No, she said. The city now has the records. You have to call Morton Hall.”
To save money, I hadn’t activated my smart phone to make calls. The woman told me not to worry — we’d go back to her house right around the corner and she’d make a call. She found the number, made the call, and handed me her phone. Yes, said the person on the line, the city could provide me with the row where the plot was located, along with the people who were buried on either side. That information would prove invaluable.
Two days later, I still hadn’t received an email. But I had been the library to do some research. I found death certificates for Hugh Simmers (1852-1916) and Marion Murray (1858-1917) in the “Scotlands People” database. The death certificate listed the names of their parents, including their mothers’ maiden names. The information helped me trace the family line back another generation. Marion’s father, James, was a stationmaster. Her mother’s maiden name was Allan. Hugh’s father, William, was a “general dealer” and auctioneer.
Finally, the email came through. I returned to the cemetery the next day. According to the map, the plot (149) was supposedly along an inner row, which was difficult to find because the graveyard was so poorly maintained. I looked for a headstone that matched the general shape of the one in the pictures. I couldn’t find it. Then I noticed a name on a small headstone — Jesse Reid. That was the name of the person buried next to my grandparents. Sure enough, sitting right next door, was a headstone that resembled the one in the picture, face down in the grass. I tried to lift it. It wasn’t going to budge.
I wondered how long the headstone had been in this state — forty years? Until I arrived, no relative had cared enough to right the stone. But I hadn’t thought enough to visit the grave either. My great grandparents were presumably good people. They raised five children, who had children of their own.
I called the city back and gave them the news. Could someone from the department could come out and turn over the headstone, I asked. They had the staff to knock them down. Why could they turn them over? They didn’t have the resources to do it. I would have to call a “monument mason.” There were plenty in the city directory. That’s not surprising. They must be doing a land-office business considering the state of the graveyards in Edinburgh.
I had run out of time. This would have to wait until I got home. I’d have to make another trip before I could see the headstone that my great grandparents had left behind. If it weren’t for disappointment, of course, I wouldn’t have any appointments.