Rock Creek Cemetery lies about 9 miles west of Duncan on Camelback at the corner of 8-Mile Road. I discovered it on a bike ride shortly after moving here, and it has quickly become part of my favorite route because there are no dogs and the roads are well paved. Moreover, the countryside is beautiful, and full of donkeys, whose bucktoothed grins make me laugh. My favorite part of the ride, however, is a yellow and black sign attached to a gray wire gate under a stubby tree outside the Rock Creek cemetery. 

NOTICE -- Before DIGGING graves or setting stones contact: (Several names and numbers are provided.)    

I discovered it one especially hot summer day when I stopped in the tiny bit of shade on the north side of the cemetery to drink some water. Summer or winter, such Oklahoma landscapes are as unchanging as this yellow and black sign whose age is discerned only by the rusted bailing wire looping it to the unlocked gate. During a rare snowstorm, small snow drifts may form shallow waves between the tombstones, but otherwise, this sign and its backdrop changes little, year to year or generation to generation.  “Behold,” I said to myself, “a sign indeed without guile!”  

Some signs provide direction and some provide information, but very few signs spark the imagination.   The Rock Creek Cemetery sign is a masterful short story, insightful social commentary, and found poetry all rolled into a few stark black letters on a yellow canvas. And like all great literature, it raises more questions than it answers. This story is real, however, printed across weathered tombstones nestled in native grasses . . . authored by a shadow of a swaying tree branch . . . bound by pastures on all sides . . . prologued by a lone homestead silhouetted in the setting sun. 

Before digging graves or setting stones . . . 

My wife hails from a place called Bridgeport, Oklahoma, with its own cemetery on a hill outside of town. Bridgeport was once a city of thousands, but only about 100 people live there now. More than once, people have dug graves there only to discover someone already buried long ago. Thousands of residents passed through that ghost town, but the cemetery only contains a few marked graves. They probably should have put up a sign, too, and a gate.  

Most signs are posted for a reason,  and I hope I never hear the true story behind the Rock Creek Cemetery’s sign because the yellow and black sign in an old cemetery in an old townsite in Stephens County captures Oklahoma’s personality perfectly, just like the grinning donkeys watching me ride my bicycle to a graveyard. A sturdy padlock or a “warning” sign could have done the trick. Laws and authorities could have replaced the list of local names and numbers. Yet, the Spirit of Oklahoma endeavors to affirm rather than affront, despite its storied history of people improperly digging graves and setting stones. Only an Okie could post a sign that so perfectly expresses irony and grief and compassion while simultaneously extending a helping hand. I laughed out loud when I first saw the sign, but as I drank my warm water in the warm breeze, the rustling dry grass softly whispered tales. A shadow of a bird floated across the tombstones, and I dared not look up. 

I often  post such signs in my older days, keenly aware that I caused many more to be posted in my youth, but that’s also the story of the Rock Creek Cemetery and the grinning donkey’s of Stephens County. And it’s the Spirit of Oklahoma, prompting us to always be gracious and to always know our place before DIGGING graves or setting stones. 

 

Dr. Deighan is the Superintendent for Duncan schools. To contact Dr. Deighan, email to tom.deighan@duncanps.org.

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