Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Kindness of Cemeteries

I went over to the graveyard. … This grief had something in it of generosity, some nearness to joy. … This country would always be populated with presence and absences … the living and the dead.     Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Fingers brush the rough stones and find names my eyes cannot. Faint chisel marks and lives have eroded to sand in this old part of the cemetery. Syllables of Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the last. Reminders of what has been and hopes for what might come. These bones are now a paler shade of white. The cold, tattered scraps of sorrow drift away on the wind. The knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door.

Cemeteries reiterate for those who won’t pay attention that the passing of breath will come to all, and bodies return to forgetful earth.
On the knoll my grandparents lay. I visit them when I’m in town, and find comfort in knowing that they will always be where I can find them. They died when they were old, the light having drawn back in their eyes, their movements slow and hesitant. I remember grandma’s concentration as she cooked and put up her jams and jellies, grandpa sweating as he tended his large garden, and their constant interest in hearing about our young lives when my family gathered around the dinner table. Their memories come back because I am standing here. There is kindness in this.

At Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky, near where Wendell Berry lives, Thomas Merton lies under a simple white cross in the monks’ cemetery. Berry sometimes came over to talk with Merton. When I spent a week there, I sat by Merton’s grave and was thrilled that his bones were only a few feet away. Long inspired by his words, I felt close to him at his grave, and at the latch we both touched to open the gate as we left the walled enclosure to walk in the woods. At night, as I watched stars drift overhead, I felt him standing beside me and looking up.

My wife Evelyn has no headstone and no grave. She was cremated as she wanted. Her ashes were scattered in places in nature dear to her, and some were taken by friends to Scotland where her ancestors once lived. There are several places I can go and feel close to her.

The places they rest are frontier’s last edge of shifting worlds, their crests the shoreline of the next. Memories of these hard lives still etch dear hearts; their lights slant angles of the afterlife.

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  1. Beautiful, Mark. I gained perspective, gratitude, and a sense of peace during hours walking in Mount Hope Cemetery while Vic was hospitalized for long periods. One phrase in this caught me: "forgetful earth." I can't bear to think of the earth as forgetful, although on one level it us. I agree with Wendell Berry that the earth holds the presence of the dead. She remembers what needs to be remembered.

    1. "Forgetful earth" This phrase showed up when I was writing, and it made me pause and think. So I kept it. I don't think the earth knows or holds any of the stories or experiences of the person buried, but we do, when we stand by the grave. And yet, returning to the soil is like coming home. What needs to be remembered, she remembers, as you say.

  2. It made me pause. I see both sides and like that. After Vic died, as I walked in the forest, I imagined how many people those old oaks had seen come and go--not to speak of the rocks. I am at heart, a dualist, Jungian, and also deeply connected to Plotinus's image of Soul. The Divisible Soul connected to nature and the Indivisible Soul connected to Nous. And so I can never truly call myself a Buddhist. I love the concept of Soul.

    1. I like to think of the Earth as a living being. I like thinking that all we are and all the awareness that we come to realize in our lives are not lost but are added to the growing, collective wisdom. You have given me more to think about, Elaine. Thank you.