Sunday, October 7, 2007

Cemetery Etiquette* - 2003

With hayfields on two sides, the windswept poplars that line the circular drive of Townsend Cemetery lean permanently north. Our family plot is tucked in the far back corner where the woods begin. Many times a year when I was growing up, I would go with Deedee, my father's older sister, to tend the graves of my Swiss grandparents and a Swiss cousin who surprised everyone by hanging himself from a beam in the haymow just before Christmas 1964.
In the center of the cemetery an ornate wooden fountain provided water for the flowers, and watering cans hung from the lilac bushes for everyone to use. It was a happy place for me to be with Deedee, who, with no children of her own, regarded me as her special friend. She taught me cemetery etiquette: walk around the graves, never run, never shout, be respectful. And she made me promise to tend her grave when she died because she knew no one else in the family, despite good intentions, would ever get around to it.

I began to keep my promise four years ago. Deedee had died, suddenly and alone on the braided rug at the top of her stairs, the previous September. It nearly broke my heart. The following June my young sons and I returned to our little village in the farm country of upstate New York. The boys and I drove over to the cemetery to assess the situation. "Don't run. Don't step on the graves. Keep your voices down." The words spilled out of my mouth unbidden. I walked them over to the cinnamon granite marker of my father's best friend, Brad Farr, whose B-24 was shot down in 1944 in the South Pacific. His tour of duty was over, but he took one last mission for a friend. As a child I discovered the cache of V-Mails my father kept in a Bible on a bookshelf in the den and read them over and over.

My plan was to plant lots of perennials and bulbs around the individual stones and the big family marker. Minimize the annuals that need water and care -- this was a decisive once-a-year gardening offensive. I set the boys to work throwing sticks over the bank and began to rake.

Early this summer, my sons and I make our annual pilgrimage to Townsend Cemetery. They are older now and know the drill. Hauling water from the fountain, now a practical, ugly concrete affair, is their favorite job. They especially like to water Brad Farr's flowers and any surrounding graves that seem neglected. They scour the place to find the graves of children and say to one another, "Oh look, here's a sad one. Three months."

Me, I've got my own issues. My low-maintenance perennial plan isn't working. Every year I seem to do the same hours of work: weeding, planting, pulling out the same annoying mums that keep coming up. I muse to myself that, because I live far away in Maine, I never get to see the continuum of daffodils and tulips in the spring or the late summer perennials in bloom. I get only a snapshot of late June with its promising buds and fledgling annuals. It's a garden of faith, and I'm in it for the long-haul.

Later in the day, leaving my boys happily playing cards with my mother, I slip back to the cemetery to spend a little time with the folks. Over the years the number of stones has grown from three to eight. The latest resident is my father who died of cancer three years ago. It's quiet and peaceful, and I allow myself a few wistful thoughts. But, truth be told, you put these eight relatives in a room together and it's anything but quiet: an odd mix of hilarious stories and bitter recriminations. The departure of my father, an inscrutable personality who managed to be both impossible and adoring, has left those of us remaining in a calm eddy that we can't quite work our way out of. It's wonderfully still, but sometimes it gets lonely.

What I think, as I clip some neglected long grass around my grandfather's stone, is that my family is a little bit like the Christian Church. For better or worse here they are, together, on the last day. My need of family draws me close on a regular rhythm just as my need of spiritual sustenance draws me to Christ's table again and again. Maybe that's why my cemetery garden needs so much care. Maybe the dead draw me back because they like to have me around. Maybe that's why our church is so complicated. Maybe being the Body of Christ in one another's midst is an impossible and adoring task. Maybe it's difficult because if it were easy we wouldn't need God so much. And maybe God enjoys our company.

I scrub the lichen and bird poop off my grandfather's stone with a wire brush."Christian Stukey - 1877 - 1956." I never knew him, but I know his stories and his foibles and his affections. I remain connected to him through something deep and complicated that I can't exactly name. Maybe belonging matters, even if it's to a bunch of nutty, depressive Swiss immigrants. Maybe it's the promise of peace and clear-sightedness that comes at the end and the generations that move on and on, before us and behind us, that draw us close and hold us.

I suspect that my sons are some of the last children in America to be taught cemetery etiquette. But it's good advice for people of faith: This is a holy place. Don't shout. Don't run. And always remember that we are bound together by sacrifice and unfathomable love.
* Winner of the 2004 Polly Bond Award of Excellence for Devotional Column by Episcopal Communicators

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