Angels shows true value of cemetery

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Stumbling through the moonlit paths of the Natchez City Cemetery, my mind raced through the past, present and future.

Never one to want to go in a straight line, let&8217;s take it out of order: Present, past, future.

Friday night, the first night of the Seventh Annual Angels on the Bluff cemetery tour, the air was cold and getting colder by the minute.

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Participants huddled close with hands in pockets and clutched into armpits, seeking a hiding spot from the cold.

Some wore fur coats; some wore nylon. Few, if any, other events draw such a great cross-section of the community.

And, unless they just liked walking around a dark cemetery on a cold night, the participants were there either out of an interest in the community&8217;s history or a desire to help.

Funds from the event go to the Natchez City Cemetery Association, which works hard to preserve and protect this valuable piece of American history.

Through the years, I&8217;ve been able to see bits and pieces of the Angels on the Bluff presentations, usually photographing the event for the newspaper or providing an extra pair of hands to the photographer who is shooting it for the newspaper.

In between kludging through headstones and helping

Ben Hillyer

by holding his camera&8217;s shutter open while he ran around &8220;painting&8221; the scene with a manually operated flash unit, I listened.

Standing in the middle of the cemetery, not near any of the Angel &8220;scenes,&8221; it was a strange, almost surreal cacophony. To the south, the sharp but soothing tones of a violin arose from the bluish shadowy scene.

Simultaneously, a burst of laughter erupts from a small crowd over my shoulder.

Then, a second or two later a rousing round of &8220;Dixie&8221; filters up from a row of trees.

All of this followed by a round of applause by another tour group in another part of the cemetery. Truly an interesting, rare symphony of sounds &8212; only heard in Natchez.

Talking about Angels on the Bluff without talking about the amazing history that is retold would be a disservice to both the many volunteers who put the event together and to the men and women whose lives they represent.

One of those lives represented Friday night was that of Capt. Thomas P. Leathers, captain of many steamboats, including the Natchez that participated in the great steamboat race in 1870.

Modern day Natchezian Bryant Reed Jr. portrayed Leathers.

Reed did a masterful job relating the life of the famous riverboat captain.

&8220;Right after my 80th birthday,&8221; Reed told the crowd in Leathers&8217; character. &8220;It was June 13 &8230; a cyclist hit me.

&8220;Can you realize that? A man of my stature and with my life, &8230; that I would come to my end because of a bicyclist?&8221;

Interestingly, Reed told of a strange fact related to Leathers&8217; last few minutes on earth.

As he lay dying, a man named Lake Jones held Leathers in his arms. Years before, Leathers had held Jones&8217; grandfather in his own arms as the man lay dying after a duel.

Such quirks of history make the cemetery&8217;s story all the more appealing.

Wouldn&8217;t it be great if the amazing cemetery could become even more preserved, even more protected? That could happen with increased accessibility.

Someone recently suggested to me an idea that at first sounded a bit strange. Imagine what would happen if Canal Street were extended and made a straight shot to the cemetery?

The idea at first sounded a bit ludicrous to me, but as I&8217;ve thought about the idea, the logic seems a little sounder.

Sure, extending Canal Street would require the relocating of a few properties, but doing so would certainly improve the access to the cemetery.

Helping more people easily get to and from the Natchez City Cemetery might make the place even more special in the hearts and minds of the living and the dead.

Kevin Cooper

is associate publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or