Stepping on Ancestral Soil

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While I was hunting for specific tombstones, MAG took this photo of the church. There is another field of stones to the left, which you cannot see in this picture, and a few — just a handful–behind the church too.

(photo by Mary Ann Glass)

Today I started a very mini-pilgrimage. Mostly I’m down in MD to visit family, but on the way, I very deliberately sought out a cemetery where I know a number of my relatives are buried. (I intend to visit another from a different part of my lineage on the way home. Both are in the same county in PA). It was…overwhelming. I walked into the cemetery and realized immediately that I am related, quite directly too, to at least 95% of the people there. I’ve never been in a cemetery where I had more than one or two relatives, certainly not one that has six plus generations of my maternal line! It was dizzying and I quickly became disoriented. I don’t think I can quite describe the sensation of walking amongst that many of my dead, or of sinking down before my third great grandparents’ stones and communing with them. It was powerful to say the least.

Since I have difficulty driving long distances because of my back and neck injuries, my friend MAG drove me down and is accompanying me on the ancestor pieces of this journey. She is a good travel buddy and very good at playing handler for me if need be—and today I needed it. We left NY at five am and made it into York County, PA by ten thirty but it took us almost another hour to find the cemetery. We knew it was off rte 425 but even so, it was not the easiest thing to find. When we did, it hit me like a punch in the solar plexus, literally knocking the wind right out of me. I saw it as we crested a hill and I knew “that one ‘s mine.”

My primary purpose was to visit the grave of my first cousin twice removed (I think I go that right! An error in my genealogy had me thinking he was my second great uncle for awhile.) Wesley Heffner who died on June 5 from wounds sustained in WWI.

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Possibly the only existing photo of him. (from “York County in the World War” by Hill, et al.

Wesley was part of Co. B 26th Infantry which was part of the first American forces to arrive in France as part of Pershing’s Expeditionary Force. They were immediately deployed to the front. According to the wiki entry on this regiment, they earned more campaign streamers than any other regiment but at a terrible cost, losing nearly half their forces. (1) They did, however, help turn the tide of the war. “…Soldiers of that regiment were quintessential doughboys: part of the first American division to arrive in France, the 26th Infantry was first to enter combat, first to sustain a casualty, first to take the offensive, and first to enter Germany after the Armistice.” (2) Wesley didn’t make it to the Armistice. He died before the battle of Soissons. I’m still trying to track down where his company would have been in May-June 1918 but I haven’t had much luck. Near as I can tell, probably Cantigny, maybe Amiens, but I’m not sure. I’ve a bit of research ahead of me.

Anyway, I went to visit his grave and I knew I had a couple more ancestors buried there but I had no idea, just…no idea exactly how many. Usually when I go into a graveyard, after having made some preliminary offerings, I can find who I’m looking for almost immediately. That was not the case here. There were just too many and I was completely overwhelmed. I finally asked Private Heffner ‘I’m here to honor you, I need some help finding you!” and heard clear as day “look to your right.” And there he was. Later, he helped me find his grandparents (I finally thought to ask him again after I nearly passed out from the heat after a very long time tramping through in the graveyard. I tried to douse and it all but exploded in my hands because there were just so many of my ancestors there. Again, when I asked, he immediately pointed them out).

I have a certain protocol that I follow when I come into a cemetery to do this type of work. First I cover my head and I greet the cemetery spirit itself. I make offerings to the cemetery and then general offerings to those buried there, explaining my purpose. I ask the help of the cemetery itself and my own ancestors in locating them. Usually it’s not a problem but this was so intense. I don’t have words to explain. If there is anywhere in the United States that is my ancestral land, it’s Chanceford Township. To this day, Heffners, Schoffs, Runkles et al people the place. This cemetery was filled with my people, my ancestors, generation after generation after generation and they recognized me, and so did the land itself. It’s the only time in the US that I’ve had that experience (it has happened occasionally at certain places in Europe). There was a depth of connection there that I’d never experienced before. Usually when I go into a cemetery in MD or PA I might have one or two ancestors there, maybe half a dozen but not dozens, not multiple generations (as in seven, eight, nine and more generations), not that many directly linked, my direct antecedants. It was so incredibly dizzying.

So after staggering around the cemetery pouring out offerings for about a half hour, I finally realized I needed to focus. I made a general offering to all of my ancestors there and explained first I wanted to find Wesley, and then having asked his help I did that. I spent a good half hour making offerings. The photo of the young man above is very likely the only extant picture of him. Soldiers were (and I believe still are) photographed when they enlist, just in case they die in service, which he did.

I made offerings at his stone, having divined last night about their appropriateness. (For those new to reading my blog, reverencing the dead is a major tenet of my religion. We are expected to tend our ancestors’ graves, visit them, make offerings, know our genealogy, maintain a household ancestor shrine, etc. We use divination to ensure that our offerings and actions are correct and welcome).

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I also poured out offerings of fresh water, both to Wesley and to as many of the dead as I could. Then of course, I poured out to everyone as a group.

Then I double checked my list (I had a list of ancestors that I knew were buried in that cemetery. It was…to say the least…incomplete! While I was hunting for Wesley, a woman came and made a grave rubbing of one of the stones for a client (she was a genealogist), and spoke with my friend MAG. She gave MAG a website where another genealogist had taken photographs of every stone in that cemetery. It was very helpful. MAG passed it onto me and I was able to see what a stone looked like, which narrowed down the process of finding it (no small thing given that my head was just spinning the whole time I was there. Writing this now, hours and hours later, I feel as though I was hit by a mack truck and I’m not sure if it’s from the long drive or the time with my dead!)(3)

I cried when I found the graves of my third great grandparents Jesse Runkle and Elizabeth Runkle (nee Oberlander). Their stones are side by side and as with Wesley I was able to sit for a long time in front of them talking, praying, and making offerings. I’ve never quite experienced anything like sitting there on that ground with them and I wish I could have stayed for a much longer time. There simply wasn’t enough time and I hope to soon return, perhaps in a few months, and spend a significant amount of time in a mini utiseta.(4)

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Jesse and Elizabeth Runkle, my third great grandparents. 

Here is Jesse’s stone by itself:

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Here is a photo (poor quality for which I apologize!) of him and Elizabeth as adult seniors (copied from the Runkle Genealogy book by J .Grove. She was kind enough to send me a photocopy of the images as we are both descended from Jesse. I do not know who originally took these portraits as both of my third great grandparents died well before I was born!):



And here is her stone by itself:

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After a stumbling, staggering struggle (and nearly passing out from the heat, which I ignored far too long in a dogged desire to find their stone), I managed to find with Wesley’s help, the stones of my second great grandparents William Henry Heffner and Catherine Heffner (nee Runkle).

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Sadly, the writing is not all that legible. It’s William H.(henry) Heffner, Died Oct. 13, 1905, aged 69 years, 5 months, 11 days and Catharine Heffner, Died Feb. 10, 1920, aged 73, 3 (I think) days.

Wesley is their grandson. His parents, Amos and Della Heffner were there too.

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I actually have conflicting information about the death date of Della and one cannot always trust tombstones. I need to double check that date.

It was odd, I kept wondering why everyone wasn’t grouped together ‘why aren’t you buried next to relatives?” except they are. The entire cemetery is related. I’m still boggled by it. I realize why people fight to the death to protect their ancestral burial grounds. I always understood it mentally but now I get it on a gut level. I understand to the marrow of my being. These are my people and this land that holds their bones is sacred.

It is late now and I am exhausted and will be spending the next two days with (living) relatives. I have more to tell and more photos but for now I’ll conclude with this image. Those rolling fields and many more like them once sustained my ancestors. It’s a good place to live and a very good place to rest and when the land speaks carrying the bones of one’s dead, it’s very hard not to listen.

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(all photos unless otherwise noted are mine).




  1. See this entry. 
  2. See page five
  3. I’m lucky too. I kept finding Civil War soldiers amongst my direct antecedents and MAG helpfully pointed out that I must have had soldiers who fought at Gettysburg – it isn’t that far from here and all of my folks were in PA regiments. It was, for awhile 50/50 as to whether we’d be making a side trip to the battlefield. It’s still a possibility.
  4. Later, after the cemetery visit, I met a cousin (twice over, though we haven’t calculated the exact relationship, how many times removed, etc.) who has helped me in the past with my genealogy. Ms. J. as I’ll call her here told me that Elizabeth was a remarkable woman. She had sixteen children and all of them survived to adulthood, something almost unheard of in her time. These women were tough. It wasn’t uncommon to have ten, thirteen, sixteen, seventeen, and more children at home and sans painkiller or modern medicine. They had grit.

4 thoughts on “Stepping on Ancestral Soil

  1. You know, when I first read this, I thought of the cemetery in Mount Airy, NC, which isn’t quite so crowded with my ancestors and relations, but has plenty of us. This is a town in which strangers know my family tree by my great grandmother’s maiden name and people who could not possibly have been alive when it was open can point out where my grandmother’s uncle’s pharmacy was, where a cousin of mine accidentally moved into her grandmother’s childhood home, and had no idea until she went to research the house, where the hardware store will, if I ask nicely, let me into the office to see my great-grandfather’s safe from when it was his general store. Lots of history there.

    Today, though, I remembered a graveyard even more personal, which I visited once, many years ago. A private one, on land still owned by distant cousins. Between one and two dozen graves, all people I’m related to, out back of the cabin my namesake Ader Rebecca was born and died in. That one visit was incredibly powerful for me, and I have pictures of it still.


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