Our second reading group session on Tom Sawyer originally included a field trip to an old family cemetery. It used to be located near a town, but the town was flooded out numerous times and was abandoned. It’s a perfectly located cemetery for the kids to experience a bit of what Tom and Huck did. (No, we didn’t plan a middle-of-the-night with a dead cat to try to get rid of warts!) But the cemetery is about a 30 minute (one mile) hike from the trailhead, and Tom and Huck walked about that far in the book to get the St. Petersburg cemetery. I’d also hoped to give them the experience of an old, small family cemetery that would look more similar to the cemetery of Tom and Huck’s day.
Then those vagaries of life kicked in, and we ended up short on time to make the drive to the trailhead and the hike in to the cemetery. So, we settled for a stop at the cemetery just on the edge of town. (Reading group hint: always have a back-up plan!) As it turned out, the kids enjoyed this cemetery immensely and were quickly engaged in reading old stones, trying to get clear rubbings, and figuring out how families might have been connected.
Again, we started off the session with a number of discussion questions, ranging from basic comprehension (e.g. why were Tom and Huck going to a graveyard at midnight?) to questions that required more interpretation (e.g. how much time did Tom spend on his own – in one case, around 8 hours – and what would happen today if a child his age disappeared for that long?). Once again, I was amazed at how well the readers understood and remembered the events in the book.
One of the things we talked at length about before going into the cemetery was how different cemeteries today look. The graveyard in Tom Sawyer was unkempt – waist-high grass, a “sagging” plank fence, stones arranged in no particular fashion, etc. Cemeteries today are generally very well maintained – the grass is cut and trimmed regularly, stones are placed in orderly rows, if there is fencing it’s perhaps chain link or an aesthetically pleasing wood or metal, etc. We also talked about how flowers and other decorations are very common today. (Even the language is different – Twain used the word “graveyard” whereas we tend to use the term “cemetery.”)
No one in the group had done rubbings before, so it was initially a labor intensive process. I heard “I need help!” quite a times and was happy to have my husband along to help with this one. (I was also thrilled that a friend and I had traded my two younger kids for one of her older ones.) The kids were fascinated to find stones memorializing infants (so young an age wasn’t given) up to a 102-year-old woman. One of the first stones we looked at was actually an eight year old child, which made a marked impression on them since several of the readers are eight years old.
Before we left, I asked everyone to share one thing that particularly struck them about the cemetery visit. No single answer was duplicated – with comments ranging from the curiosity of old stones (for people who died in the early 1900s) still having relatively new silk flowers by the graves (someone must be still caring for the stones), to an interest in the artwork on the stones, and everything in between. I can’t help but wonder whether the group participants will remember this cemetery visit as adults. As part of a cemetery visit I made around the age of 10, on a reading group field trip, I saw this poem:
Listen, my children, as you pass by.
As you are, so once was I.
As I am, soon you shall be.
Come, my children, and follow me.
Slightly morbid, perhaps, but it always fascinated me and I still recall the poem clearly. As an adult I can see how clearly it earmarks that stone as significantly older – I can’t imagine someone putting that on a grave marker today.
And do you suppose I remembered the camera? Or that anyone else thought about taking photos? Of course not!
Our next field trip will be to the beach at a nearby state park, where we’ll play pirates, read pirate books, make a pirate craft for use at our fourth group session, swim and build sandcastles.