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Festivals, customs honor the dead

Wilcher Banner and Cordelia Hines were privileged in many ways. Both born to wealthy planter families, they moved in the elite circles of business and political influence of Surry and Stokes counties. Though Civil War losses set them back, the families recovered financially and retained their vaunted status well into the 20th century.

But death recognizes no status and grants no reprieve for wealth, beauty, or innocence.

Wilcher and Delia married in 1872. Just over a year later Annie was born. The chubby-cheeked little girl was cherished and a photo portrait was made of her when she was three or four.

In September 1880, the energetic child contracted strep throat followed by an all-too-common companion illness, scarlet fever. By the end of the month their bright-eyed little girl was gone.

At some point the family had the photograph hand painted to highlight Annie’s rosy cheeks and long brown hair. The lace details of her white dress and the pink satin ribbon were also touched up.

A bouquet of blue forget-me-nots are seen laying on her little lap. Almost certainly added after her death, they symbolized the unfailing love of a parent for their child and a promise to never forget her.

From our position in history with improved healthcare and safety regulations, it might be difficult to grasp the realities lived by our ancestors, a reality wherein people understood they were likely to bury several of their children before the age of 20.

Until the 1950s only about half of the children born in Europe or America survived to see their 15th birthday. This was a reality the Banner family experienced all too vividly as they lost four of 12 children while still small and two more in their early 20s.

Every culture around the planet has traditions and celebrations to help remember those who have crossed over: Zhongyuan, the Festival of the Hungry Ghost, in China when they burn paper offerings, and set up empty seats at meals; Obon in Japan when they place lanterns to guide ghosts home to family reunions; Thursday of the Secrets in the Middle East was created by the great Saladin in the 12th century to bridge the gap between Christian and Muslim and is celebrated by giving offerings of food to the poor and children on Maundy Thursday.

The American Halloween has been celebrated with “zest” and “enthusiasm” in Surry County for more than a century as reported in the local papers. An elaborate series of Halloween parties were held over two days in 1909 at various people’s homes, some to raise money for Trinity Episcopal Church.

As reported in the Mount Airy News, Cora, daughter of prominent attorney and long-time Mount Airy mayor W.F. Carter, hosted a fortune teller. Guests to the W.E. Merritt home on North Main Street (now Heart and Soul Bed and Breakfast) were “shrouded in white, and ghost stories were told amid the weird lights of the jack-o’lantern, moans and rattling of bones added to the impressiveness of these tales.”

Halloween (originally All Hallows Eve) comes from an older and longer Catholic celebration of All Hallows or All Saints Day (Nov. 1) that venerates the saints of the church. All Souls Day (Nov. 2), follows honoring those beloved and faithful members of families and communities who have passed on in the year before.

The church co-opted an even older observance in Gaelic cultures called Samhain (pronounced sow-en) during which it was believed the dead could cross back into the land of the living. Bonfires and loud revelry were used to keep them on their own side.

Those Catholic holy days brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500s likewise blended with Aztec traditions of honoring their dead to bloom into the colorful Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities observed by many in Surry County today.

Cemeteries are an important part of remembering our dearly departed. They are generally places of quiet contemplation for many people as they process their grief, observe important anniversaries, or just sit quietly with the tangible reminder of their loved one. However, as time passes, there are fewer living to remember those buried in older cemeteries and time takes its toll. Headstones need regular care and cleaning or they’ll deteriorate.

There are many ways to remember and celebrate the dead. I think it’s important to keep in mind that there is no wrong way to celebrate. When we remember them, tell their stories, laugh at happy memories, cry for our loss, we are extending them our love and that is its own kind of immortality.



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