It was the last thing I wanted to do. Yet my two grandchildren were literally dragging me into the old Palmer Pioneer Cemetery. I had taken them to play in the park that adjoins the cemetery on this bright sunny day, but they had other plans. Each pulling on one of my hands, they said, “Come on, Mema. We want to see the graves.”
I was a little weary of graves and of being with the dying. Just back from a trip to Iowa where I led a service to bury my mother, I had stayed a week longer to bury my oldest sister’s husband as well, who had died not totally unexpectedly, but sooner than we thought, just the day before my mother’s funeral. “I’ve had enough,” I thought.
It dawned on me that my 7 year old grandson and 4 year old granddaughter were so interested because they had taken part in my mother’s graveside service, helping to lead the procession to the open grave where her ashes would be buried. When it was over, and they had thrown their share of the rich Iowa soil into the small hole, they and the other children gathered around it, talking to themselves and looking with great curiosity at the urn and the mysterious sense of this final resting place. “Where was Nana?” now, they seemed to ask. How did this blue jar in the earth now explain where the woman who had snuggled them to herself and read them books had gone?
So reluctantly, I walked the graves with my grandchildren that day, one by one, very carefully, reading the names, the dates, the writing that was on each marker. They asked questions about the different kinds of crosses and what did it mean to put a cross at the head of grave? Some had pictures within the headstones, often of children and teens and at the base, faded moments of their lives, like a small teddy bear or a toy. They wanted to know what age they were when they died and then would stand quietly thinking about this. They asked about the angel sculptures and what did that mean? Why were some headstones so tall and some just flat on the ground? Why were some surrounded by flowers and others nearly overgrown with weeds? Why was there a bench in front of this one? Why was there a fisherman engraved on this one? Why a picture of a plane on the other? Why, why, why.
But I silently asked other questions Why do we die? Die too young? Too violently or too painfully? Why does it hurt so much for those left behind?
The ground was uneven, which matched the unsteadiness of my soul; it had been just 8 months since losing my best friend as well; and two other close friends were facing life-threatening cancer. Again, I’d had enough of dying. But as we wandered from grave to grave, giving each one such careful attention, I began to feel some inner warmth, some consolation. Rather than increasing my tired grief, it surprisingly assuaged the lingering exhaustion and my own unanswered questions.
We had a rich time in that graveyard, facing death over and over. And I remembered how my mother had often taken me to the cemetery where she now lay to look at gravestones. And how I too, was glad to go and just wander from one to another, hearing her tell the stories of relatives and friends who laid there. The headstones marked the story of a life, whatever that life might have been and however that life might have loved. It simply ‘was what it was” as my mother would often say.
At some point near the end of our time there with my grandchildren, I thought, “We all die.” And in that moment, knowing every human being will leave the physical body behind and travel on, I felt a kind of community with others that was consoling and healing. I felt lighter than when I entered.
It’s a difficult and painful step to take–to simply accept the death of our physical body or of those we love–but at the same time, it is so natural and inevitable to die. As we walked back to the gate to the cemetery, I still grieved, still walked with my questions, but I could live with them, be curious about them, rather than rejecting them. It took the innocence of children to lead me in and within.