Let's Reminisce: Learning from ancient burial practices

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

A recent issue of “National Geographic” included an intriguing article about the discovery of the oldest known Homo sapiens grave yet found in Africa. Dated to around 78,000 years, the fragile remains of a 2- to 3-year-old child were found in a pit dug in a cave in southern Kenya. The article said that reports of older human burials have shown up in Europe, including some sites attributed to Neanderthals. But many of these appear to be more like what scientists call “funerary caching,” or deliberately disposing of dead bodies in a location without burial rituals. By contrast, the Kenya grave is not only the oldest, it is definitely a burial. Sediments around the body show signs of a pit being filled in, and chemical traces reveal flesh decomposing in the earth.

What’s more, based on the placement of the bones and how they have shifted over time, the researchers believe the child was wrapped up in some kind of shroud, with its head nestled on a now-disintegrated pillow.

Contemplating this burial of a child so long ago led me to revisit memories I have of two infant burials that took place in 1944 in the Seale-Round Prairie Cemetery, near the farm where I grew up in central Texas. One child, whose name I will not reveal, was born May 2, 1944 and died the next day. The parents were good friends of my father and mother, and my dad helped to dig the grave.

Decades later, when I was an adult, Daddy told me that on the day of the funeral service and burial, a slow rain was falling. Instead of attending the service, he went to the cemetery and used a tin can attached to a long piece of baling wire to dip water fromthe grave. He said he didn’t want the child’s parents to have to watch their child’s casket be lowered into a watery grave.

The second infant burial I’m thinking about was for a stillborn child born about six weeks later, June 14, 1944. The parents of this child were my mother and father. I was only two years old at the time, and of course I have no memory of the birth or death of this child who was my sibling. The way I learned about it is the point of my telling this story.

Seven years later, when I was about ten, I accompanied my mother to the cemetery, as she visited the new grave of an aunt, because she wanted to collect some flowers to preserve as a keepsake. While we were in the cemetery, I accidentally discovered the tombstone for my younger brother, complete with his name (Robert David Lincecum) and the phrase “infant son of Jack and Mildred Lincecum.”

It surprised and shocked me. My immediate reaction was to go to my mother and ask why I didn’t know about this. When I saw my mother’s response of hurt and grief, I backed off and did not pursue the question. Only decades later did I realize what a great impact the death of my sibling had on my life, making me the treasured “only child” for four years. Eventually I came to realize that my life would have been quite different if that sibling had survived, in that I would not have been the center of attention in our family for so long. 

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.