Not long ago, I began looking into a family story I had heard more than once as a child. There were variations on it but there was one part of the story that was consistent. And that was that there was a great, great, great uncle who died as a young child and who was later moved from his original grave and re-buried. The child in question was Howard Thomas Johns. He was the first born child of Proctor Moses Johns and Lula Owens Johns. He died in September of 1885 just a little shy of being five years old.
This is a photo of him and his family. According to my great aunt Josephine, this picture was taken not long before his death.
The little girl is my great grandmother, Gertha Laura Johns, who would grow up and marry Joseph Augustus Johnston. If this photo is from 1885 as Aunt Josephine had been told, then it’s very likely that “Ma-Ma Johns” is expecting her last child, Nettie, who was born in July of 1885. That would mean the photo was possibly from the first half of the year. Whatever the case, I grew up hearing the couple in this photo referred to as “Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa Johns” – the dear grandparents of my grandmother. The little boy, Howard Thomas Johns, was born Oct. 20, 1880 and died Sept. 11, 1885.
I’m not sure when but sometime after he died, as the story goes, he was re-buried at the cemetery in Midway, Alabama. Ma-Ma Johns was present and when the workmen had removed his casket from the ground, she saw his face through a glass portal on the lid. Supposedly he was little changed from the moment he was buried. I have heard other stories like this of bodies buried even longer so if his casket was well sealed, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. She asked them to open the casket so she could see her son, and, as the story goes, when the air hit him, he began to crumble to dust before her eyes. It must have been a dramatic thing to see to have survived as a family story all these years.
The part of the story I had been confused about for years was why the body was being moved at all. I thought I had understood that an entire cemetery was moved but after searching newspapers.com online and finding nothing about such an event in Ma-Ma Johns’ lifetime in Bullock County, Alabama, I began to doubt that particular detail. After another frustrated search for this information, I had a small epiphany. Granted this is still just a hunch, but I feel like this was staring me in the face the entire time.
Shortly before Howard Thomas Johns died in September, 1885, his grandfather, Thomas M. Johns, died in August of 1885. I’ve been to his grave at the site of the old Fairview Church in Bullock County. And it had occurred to me that Pa-Pa Johns lost a father and a son in short order, but I never though further about that.
At this point the entire family lived in Pine Grove, a small community near Midway, Alabama. Pa-Pa Johns was an only child, unusual for his time. When he married, his new wife moved into the same home with her new in-laws. Not so unusual for the time, of course. So if the family buried Pa-Pa’s father at Fairview in August, doesn’t it stand to reason they buried young Howard there a month later? It makes far more sense than them burying him several miles away in Midway for sure. Although I suppose it’s possible since Ma-Ma Johns was from Midway, but if I were betting, I’d suspect he was originally buried alongside his grandfather who died only a month before.
Having listened to family lament the location of various family graves over the years, I think the motivation to move Howard’s grave was simple. It was likely down to a mother wanting her family together even in the hereafter. And at some point in the years after his death, the family moved into Midway.
I don’t know an exact year. Certainly by the 1900 census the family show as being in Midway and I have a suspicion it was sooner than that. Ma-Ma Johns was an adopted child. Her adoptive parents, Dr. and Mrs. William Aurelius Mays, called Midway home. And both passed in 1891. Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa Johns are buried alongside them in the Midway Cemetery. Also buried adjacent to them are Rosalie Tarver (one of their granddaughters) and Howard Thomas Johns, their son. And as I said, I believe with the family having moved to Midway and the burials that took place in the years after that Ma-Ma Johns probably decided she wanted her young son with the rest of his immediate family. Ma-Ma Johns lived until 1945, so there’s a wide span of years when the re-burial could have taken place.
These family graves are recorded on the Find A Grave website.
I would love to hear from any family members who may have heard more details of this particular family story. And other readers out there, do you have a similar story?