Sledge kicks off Lunch at Library

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 27, 2002

John Sledge sat behind a table piled with his books, chatting easily with locally renowned author Mary Ward Brown prior to his talk at the Selma-Dallas County Public Library Thursday afternoon for the first Lunch at the Library series for the season.

Brown purchased a book for her son and asked Sledge to autograph it for him.

Sledge handed the book over to the author, mentioning how humbled he was to hear Brown praise his book, &uot;Cities of Silence,&uot; which is a look into five of Mobile’s historic cemetaries.

Sledge, who is a historian for the Mobile Historic Commission and book editor for the Mobile Register, started work on the project a couple years ago so it would be ready in time for Mobile’s 300th anniversary. Sledge has many ties to Selma. Born and bred in Montevallo, He is the nephew of former Times-Journal writer and historian Octavia Winn and ventured down to see her. He also did his master’s thesis on Summerfield. So coming back to Selma was, in a sense, coming home.

He presented a slideshow showing the cemetaries he covered in the book, with much of the slides focusing on the old Church Street Graveyard (they called them graveyards in the early 1800s) and Magnolia Cemetary.

Sledge, who lost his father during the research and writing of the book, was in awe about how the Victorians, who are so famous for supressing sex, treated death with respect.

This key is seen in the elaborate carvings that are not only prevalent in Mobile cemetaries, but in Selma’s own Live Oak Cemetary as well.

The stark reality of life in the 1800s is shown too, with dozens of graves marking the high infant mortality rate in that era as well as raised graves to keep bodies from being washed away by floods.

In the past few decades death has been pushed back to the furthest recesses of the mind, Sledge said. It has been reviled and feared. Many modern graves are just slabs sunk into the ground that can be mowed over easily.

But, a sign of reverence is coming back. Victorian graves had carvings depicting what a person did for a living or for a hobby, such as one slide showing a stone carving of a fire pump truck for a deceased firefighter.

Sledge’s favorite modern gravestone has this little piece of the Victorian era on it – a carving a of a fly fisherman for the deceased man who loved to fish.

And the epitaph? Gone fishing with Jesus.