Orlenah’s Grave

My husband, who is not necessarily into genealogy and cemeteries, but is a handy side-kick, commented that it is a lot like being a detective, but without the murder. He made his observation as we were entering the cemetery where we believed his great-grandmother was interred. I agree, pointing out that, while it may not involve a murder, there is the aspect of learning the story of those who have died.

My husband’s great-grandmother, Orlenah Ray Halliburton Basim, was born 16 Jun 1869, and died 17 Jul 1894, at age 25, just a few months after giving birth to her third daughter, my husband’s grandmother, Lena. As I caught bits and pieces of her story from family members, I wanted to know more about her.

All I knew initially was that she was born in Missouri, that her family ended up living near Washington, DC, but that she died half-way in between in Tennessee, where she was buried, alone, someplace the family didn’t fully remember. I had a couple pictures of her – so young and compelling.

Newspaper articles show that Orlenah had some health issues that prompted her husband, Elmer, to make the move from MO, although what the health issues were specifically is still unknown to me.

The Macon Republic, 16 Feb 1894.

Various other articles gave me the location in TN – Sewanee.

Elmer’s father and the rest of the family soon followed them to TN. After Orlenah’s death, Elmer married again, a year later, to a local woman. One of Elmer’s brothers, though, had moved to the DC area, and the whole Basim family ended up there soon after.

In the early 1960s, Orlenah and Elmer’s youngest daughter Lena travelled to Tennessee to visit her half-sister (from Elmer’s second marriage.) Someone took a couple Polaroid pictures of them with Lena’s mother’s grave. Lena and her husband died a short time later in an automobile accident, and no one thought to label the photo with the name of the cemetery.  

Half-Sisters Fannie and Lena

One day, while studying the Polaroids, I had an idea. I pulled up Google maps and searched for cemeteries in the Sewanee area. I studied the satellite images of cemeteries, looking for ones with a similar topography of dirt roads and tree canopy. Only one seemed to fit – the cemetery associated with University of the South. I live in Georgia, and Sewanee was only a few hours away. I talked my husband into taking a day trip.

When I mentioned to my in-laws that we were going to go find the cemetery, they mentioned that the daughter of Lena’s half-sister still lived in the area. I cold-called them, introduced myself, and we made plans to visit. I also contacted the library at the University, to see if they had any cemetery records. They did, and made me an appointment to meet with their archivist.

We found the cemetery easily, and armed with the photographs, we drove around, looking for a background that matched – Specifically, the cross monument, with the two crosses behind it.

Such a thrilling moment to find the spot! Orlenah’s marker was so lichen-encrusted that we never would have found it otherwise. We stopped by the University book store to see if we could buy some crayons and tissue paper, to try to make a rubbing. (Note: this was before I had learned that this is NOT a good idea to do with old gravestones.) They didn’t sell either item, but the cashier found us a couple old crayons and gave us a length of brown wrapping paper.

Same angle as Poloroid. See the crosses in the background? This is the back of the gravestone.
Lichen-covered.
Orlenah’s epitaph, revealed by the crayon rubbing.

When we visited with the archivist, he showed us the burial records. We learned that Orlenah’s name was misspelled: “Orleanah Basin,” and we were able to make the correction. We also learned that burial in this cemetery is restricted to those associated with the University in some way. We have no idea how Orlenah came to be buried there, as there is no known association.

We ended up having a lovely visit with the family of Elmer’s second wife. They gave us a tour of several other local cemeteries where their family members were buried, including a hitherto unknown half-brother of Lena’s, beside his mother, Elmer’s second wife, in a tiny cemetery in the middle of someone’s farm field.

Elmer’s life post-Orlenah was messy. He married a couple times, had children that were raised by other people, served in the Spanish-American war, and is buried at Arlington. That might be a story for another day.

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