If there is a cemetery to be found in Bladen County, Barney and Shirley Fergus have probably found it — or want to.
The Ferguses, who live just inside the Bladen County line near Harrells, have spent countless hours over the past 39 years in genealogy work and, in 2008, it led them to their most recent endeavor: tracking down old grave sites.
It all started when the couple was asked if they could find a grave site in Ivanhoe, and they were hooked.
“I’m pretty passionate about this,” Shirley said. “And the sad part is that the current generation — and even our own generation — seems not to care much about cemeteries.”
“This is a labor of love for us both,” Barney said. “We’re just trying to preserve history.”
Their efforts have taken them to numerous nooks and crannies of Bladen County, as well as grave sites in other North Carolina counties. And over the past four years, Shirley has taken more than 8,000 photos of headstones. Because of that, the couple has a number of interesting stories to tell.
“While researching death certificates from years ago, it’s common to come across such things as the undertaker being listed as ‘neighbor’ or the place of burial to be ‘back yard,’” Barney said.
“We’ve also run into funeral home markers that nobody can read,” Shirley said, “which means we don’t know who is buried there and have to list it as ‘unknown.’”
Shirley added that one cemetery, located in the Ammon community, took her four years to find.
“There are cemeteries hidden all over Bladen County that most people don’t know about,” she said. “Often, if you see a stand of trees out in the middle of a field, there could be an old cemetery there.”
Barney said they’ve heard many stories about farmers plowing their fields, digging up old grave markers and tossing them aside or even hauling them away.
“We’ve also gone to a cemetery with only six headstones, only to find out that more than 180 people have been buried there,” Shirley said.
One humorous story the Ferguses like to tell is when they went to photograph a cemetery and, on the street next to it was a road sign that read “Dead End.”
One not-so-humorous story was shared by Shirley.
“One time, and one time only, I fell into an open grave,” she said. “Usually, when I’m photographing, I don’t look very closely to where I am, and I need Barney there to kind of keep an eye on me. This particular time, he didn’t get to me in time.”
One of the challenges the Ferguses have when searching for old cemeteries is that the headstones of yesteryear weren’t made to last.
“We run across a lot of cemeteries where the graves were marked with a sandstone headstone or even wooden markers,” Barney said. “Those either rotted or fell apart long ago, and it’s often hard to figure out who is buried there.”
Shirley and Barney don’t only search for and photograph old cemeteries for themselves. They also get asked by folks around Bladen County, around the state, across the country and throughout the world for help in locating old grave sites.
That led them to creating Forgotten Cemeteries Photography, but they don’t charge for their services.
“We’ve had people contact us from as far away as Australia and New Zealand,” Shirley said.
When contacted, the Ferguses will research the cemetery, track it down and find the headstone in question. It will be photographed and sent to the individual requesting it — but it will also become part of the Fergas’ growing archives.
“Someday, all of this will be given to the Bladen County Historical Society,” Shirley said.
Almost all of what the Ferguses have found and photographed can also be found online at www.findagrave.com, which is where most of their inquiries come from.
“We had one request through the website for a cemetery that our research told us was no longer there,” Shirley said. “But when we went to where it used to be, we found that it was still there.”
“It often takes a lot of researching and walking,” Barney said.
The Ferguses can be reached by telephone at 910-588-6174 or 876-5655; or through the website at www.findagrave.com; or by email at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.