Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

The Art of Home

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. As a kid it was a way to recreate the machined elegance of Spitfires, Mustangs, and other warplanes. I never quite mastered landscapes; people were right out.

Later, I took up photography with my dad’s Minolta XD 5, and haven’t let up on that hobby, though it loses some charm when we all have a fine lens in our pockets.

More recently though, my wife (who has always enjoyed painting and all things crafty) has become quite the watercolor aficionado. She’s really quite good, and she’s gotten the rest of the family into it, too.

The impetus for this turn has been the co-op school our older two girls attend (and where Rachel tutors part-time) which draws on Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas, including observational learning from nature. As such, each student is encouraged to keep a nature journal where they can paint or draw the things they spot in the world around them. We’ve adopted this habit as a family, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found in taking up the brush.

It starts off simply enough, it’s just drawing with paint, right? Except that’s not it at all. Learning to work in a medium to its strengths takes practice.

The milky paint acts like the water it is, seeking its level, finding the crevices in the paper like micro-arroyos, absorbing in to fade and spread colors. If you mix it thick enough to stay put, all of its liveliness shuts down, leaving you with flat, smeared lines.

To represent what you see, you have to paint what you don’t, laying down layers of color, slowly fading from light to dark to get things just right. The brush has to be held like a scalpel, the pressure, angle, and part of the tip with which you first touch the paper is going to set your course for good or ill. And once you’ve done something you don’t like, trying to fix it will only make it worse.

Watercolor has been a humbling learning curve for all of us, but perhaps for me—self-assured and overconfident as ever—most of all. You have to come prepared to shift along with it. The art takes you where it wants to go, and if you resist, it pushes you out of the picture.

During this time of pandemic and shutdown and quarantine, we’ve found some bursts of creativity. For me, that’s taken its usual poetic turn, but the watercolor has brought life, too. Because we’re stuck at home, we’ve looked closer at the world close at hand, watching and waiting as the magic of spring and the circles of life unfold in our 1/4 acre yard. We’ve been forced to slow down and open our eyes.

The past several weeks have been more of the old normal for me—working too hard on projects for my job and writing papers and studying to wrap up another semester at seminary. But I’m ready to stick a pin in all that and start to paint again.

Is it coping? Perhaps, but it is also exploring. Learning to know a place deeply enough to see it as it is. Pain, beauty, joy, anxiety, and anger swirl about in every breath these days, and we wait, brush in hand for what may happen next.

Marriage, or Talking to Myself

The Bible says
   A man and his wife
      Become one flesh and that
         Must include the brain as well as
      The heart and all the rest
   Perhaps this is why
Our eyes always
   Meet in mutual
      Recognition of the
         Crude cruel funny and sad and
      Why we laugh and cry at
   The same time maybe
That’s why we have
   Ended up liking
      All the same foods and same
         Movies and music and have
      Generally become
   Inseparable
Not in the so
   Sappy romantic
      Sense which usually
         Is meant by that word but just
      A simple statement of
   The fact that after
So many years
   There really isn’t
      A distinctive you and
         Me and even when you’re not
      Here you don’t won’t rub off
   This is probably
Why most of the
   fights that we’ve had with
      Each other in truth have
         Been fights with myself steady
      Internal dialogue
   That slowly flows down
To acceptance
   Pooling into faith
      In jumped-to conclusions
         And a brave face toward the world.

Image: Tide Pools, Beaufort County, S.C., September 2019.

Morning

A sweetgum is silhouetted
        against the east cream-sky, leaves like
                black stars against inverted space,
Absorbing all light.

Weathered, brittle plastic toys lie
        scattered in the backyard, glowing
                in faint beatific rose rays
For a little while.

The house sits quiet and languid
        as the summer air outside feels
                like a held breath, waiting to burst
Out, then in again.

When the kids wake, the spell will be
        broken, but for the time being,
                the world itself seems possible,
Open, blank, watching.

Maybe today’s news won’t happen,
        and all is cream and roses and
                God is standing back of it all
                        Breathing, “It is good.”

Image: Appalachian Sunrise, Watauga County, N.C., July 2018.