The Cemetary

by Gwen Adams (c. 2010)

(27th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

"Life may scatter us and keep us apart; it may prevent us from thinking very often of one another; but we know that our comrades are somewhere 'out there'—where, one can hardly say—silent, forgotten, but deeply faithful. And when our path crosses theirs, they greet us with such manifest joy, shake us so gaily by the shoulders! Indeed, we are accustomed to waiting. Bit by bit, nevertheless, it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friends, that this one garden is forever locked against us. And at that moment begins our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter. For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion. Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak. So life goes on. For years we plant the seed, or feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin. One by one, our comrades slip away, deprive us of their shade."
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars

“The cup of suffering, woe’s me, I ne’er must sip.”
—The Angel in C. S. Lewis’, The Pilgrim’s Regress

Drive out to the cemetery any day of the week and see the old graves, the new, and the waiting plots. I went last week to put flowers on the grave of Cecilia Goolous, a holy woman who died at the age of 102, the oldest woman in the parish. For years she lived just a block over from the church in an enormous Victorian house that her father bought with genuine gold bouillon more than a century ago. The house, when I saw it, was a shade of light green and had a large front porch that no one ever sat on. It had been divided up into rental units, but Cecilia said that one day her house would be used for God.

Cecilia Goolous never married and lived a life of silence and prayer. She used to sit in the back of the church by the radiators which made so much noise, and she would pray one rosary after the other. She had two great pictures of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts that she kept with her in her nursing home room until she died. She was buried in her family plot with a plain flat stone, and I used to pray to and for her and take her pink roses on occasion.

Seeing people in every day life, it is easy to forget the underlying reality. But everyone has some relative or friend here, and you can learn a lot about people that you never knew by walking through on an autumn day. It is easy to forget—indeed easy not to know who lost a child in the accident or who had a baby still-born, buried him in a tiny grave under a weeping cherry. In the winter its stripped branches hang down, each with a soft white line of snow.

It is easy to forget that someone just became a widow or widower. You can see the grave with the two names and one set of dates. When I was a child, my grandmother used to take me to see grandfather’s grave. That cemetery was canopied by elms, with trunks and limbs stretching up in an almost stylized, art deco fashion, as they do in illustrations for Sleeping Beauty. We would water the plants, and I would look at her name and her birth date and the smooth gray blank where a man would chisel the date of her death, whenever that should be. I used to go to the cemetery by myself sometimes and look at that grave and that blank spot and wonder. Now if I went, if I wished I might put my finger on that spot and feel the angled engraving of each letter and line that marks how she died on Pentecost.

It is easy to forget what people have lost, what they lose. One sees them at the parish picnic and takes their loss for granted, simply because it is common.

All over the cemetery, one can cross into other lives. In the east section, all the sisters are buried without headstone, only one plain cross to mark the spot, as if they were fallen soldiers. And if you turned to the west you could look down the hill to the farms outside town and the red barns on the rolling hills with tree-lines like the Bavaria whence the first sisters came, at the young ages of twenty and twenty-four.

It is easy to forget, it is easy not to know that someone’s daughter died on a strange and foreign soil.

Here the priest buried his parents, here lie three generations of a family, here lies someone whose family must all be dead, since the Virginia Creeper has grown over his tombstone and no one ever brings a wreath. Who cares for these souls? Who cared for them when they lived, and who cares for their families, who looks after them, now that these ones have gone on?

And there are other graves here, too. Near the bench and the sundial or by the day-lilies are the friendships that never died but simply waned away. One discovered it suddenly, perhaps while washing a dish or cup, in some mundane activity, that one’s friend had suddenly ceased to be what he was, and had gone on somewhere you could not follow. There are graves lacking markers—for broken hearts, homes, and marriages, for children that ceased to love their parents, for all the uncountable deaths of daily life, all the things that we cannot hold on to, that we lose, each fleeting moment and season, the times we cease to remember something really beautiful, or the concern of someone we loved, or the truths that made us put crosses on our graves.

There are graves for all those things between the maintenance shed and the tiny chapel with the painted white steps and the broad green lanes cut in the grass. Every year they mow those same paths, as the plots fill, and everything draws closer to the end.

When I came to bring flowers in the summer, I would often see another grave dug and the tent set up for a burial on Monday. Once it was a child’s grave, once a young mother who had four children, once an old, old man who had lived and died in great pain. All that, and then this with the weeds and the creeper.

And yet on a summer’s day when the holly-hocks bloom in the odd corners of the cemetery, they bring hummingbirds, and one realizes in some dim way the glory of this reality. I wonder, when all is said and done, what will have been more glorious in the grand scheme of things, which moment of faith and love. The victorious part? Or the blind, dark moment? If He says, “Behold, I make all things new,” which is more glorious—when he says it to you or when he does it? In the end, the difference between those two moments itself passes away.



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