This past week, only days after Memorial Day, I ironically found myself attending 2 funerals and visiting 2 cemeteries. I listened to Taps from a Marine bugle, I watched a flag being folded and unfolded by 2 solemn officers, and I straightened plastic flowers at several grave sites.
This weekend marked my most profound visit to a cemetery to date. I stood over the graves of both my parents. It’s not something you anticipate having to do until your 60s, but I’ve already done it. Then I stood over the graves of my grandparents, uncles, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents.
And I could hear my mom’s voice in my head saying,
“Don’t walk on the graves. Walk in between them. See the space between the headstones? Follow that when you walk.”
“Read the stones. Someone lived a full life, and this is how they are remembered.”
Mom was religious about instilling in us a respect for the dead because, after having been widowed at 31, she was acutely aware of the value of life.
As I ambled through the Illinois cemetery, I reflected on its role in culture. With the current popularity of cremation, I wondered if cemeteries will one day become obsolete? What value, if any, do they hold for life? My own experience has supplied me with three reasons you should visit a cemetery. I will share them with you, on the premise that you will one day find yourself standing over the granite stone of a loved one.
- Grieving needs a safe location to take place. Emotion requires a central location for people to grieve their lost loved ones–a place to come back to, where you can feel closer to the one who’s passed. Most families don’t have a homestead anymore–no house that stays in the family–so they need a different place where they can honor the dead. A cemetery can briefly provide a homestead feeling. So can any memorial, even without a body underneath it.
- The location brings healing. There is pain and joy in returning to a homestead. I drove the country roads between my parents’ birthplaces, down lanes that felt vaguely familiar–streets we had traveled as kids, between the Christmas parties and the summer vacations that we divided between our two sets of grandparents. I passed the airfield where my dad earned his pilot’s license in high school. Downtown stands the print shop where he worked, the home he grew up, the shop where my Grandpa fixed antiques, the town hall where Grandpa played drums and impressed my Grandma back in 1928. The train tracks race through each village, with daily trains that blare every 3 hours. I fell asleep and awoke to the friendly roar of the locomotive. The pain and joy of these memories are so inextricably tied, I want to leave the Illinois farmland as quickly as I can, so I can start breathing again. And yet my throat chokes and my heart yearns to stay, to visit every place that holds memories and and never go back home. Nobody ever told me that nostalgia hurts, but it does.
- Death reminds me of the beauty of life. My mother’s stone conjures up a life of love, service, and relationship. I can hear her voice and feel the softness of her cheek and the roughness of her calloused fingers. My father’s stone brings blurred memories and a childhood filled with naive, empty longing. My grandparents’ headstones ring with laughter, teasing, baking, and cuddling. I remember false teeth and flabby arm fat and strong hugs and riding Grandpa’s foot like a jockey on a racehorse. My great-grandparents’ stones hold no emotions because I never knew them, but I can stand before them and appreciate how hard life was in the late 1800s. I think about farming and a house bursting with children. They spoke German to each other but wouldn’t teach it to their children because they wanted their kids to be fully American. I am awed by their resilience to dream of a better life, one that would produce grandchildren who attended college and graduate school, who fought for their country; they wouldn’t know how they suffered in Korea, Vietnam, and on the home front. Their great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren would live lives filled with technology and comfort. I am astounded by the trajectory of life.
Every tombstone has a story. That’s what my mom wanted me to understand. I enjoy thinking of these lost souls whose bodies lie decaying underground but whose spirits soar free in eternity. It’s sobering to think that one day, I’ll be one of them, and my children will miss me, and my grandchildren will remember my arm fat, and my great-grandchildren will wonder what I was like when I was young.
Here’s my advice. Go to a cemetery. Go wherever your ancestors are buried and stand there. Appreciate their lives, and you will appreciate your own.
And if you are one whose grief is unbearable, due to painful memories, I suggest finding an alternate location–a safe place to memorialize, a place where you can sit, grieve, and heal. Plant a tree or memorialize a bench. Place a stone in your garden. Just do something because burying grief doesn’t work, and it will never heal if you don’t give it the space and time to work through the pain. I imagine that’s why someone invented the tombstone. Long ago, someone realized that burying the body was not enough. We humans, even as we seek to live immortal lives, need to mark the lives lived, from beginning to end, so memories can take flight.
Cemeteries remind us of the beauty and frailty of the human experience, and I think, perhaps help us to not be so afraid of losing it.