Sunday seems like a good enough day to talk about graveyards. I always thought cemeteries were a place to be very quiet and still and respectful of those who have died. But then I visited Germany, had toddlers, and opened my eyes to the scenery and tangible history of cemeteries.
In high school German class we learned that Germans treat their cemeteries almost like a garden – tending to the grass and flowers and raking the leaves. One year I happened to be on a long train ride on All Saints Day, November 1st. Since that day is sandwiched between Halloween and my birthday, I had always given it a slight nod when I came upon it on the calendar. But as I rode from south of Cologne toward Dortmund, I witnessed the buzzing of activity in the cemeteries on that first day of November. Despite the blur from the moving train I could see family members beautifying the graves, and as evening fell, the candles dabbled light among the seemingly happy people taking pride in tending to their loved ones’ final resting places. This was the beginning of a new concept for me: cemeteries can be places of activity instead of stillness.
Even though I had witnessed happy people in cemeteries, I still felt like when I am in a cemetery I should be quiet. And then I had kids. A few summers ago I asked my father-in-law to take me and the girls to Jackson, Georgia where he and my mother-in-law were from. I packed my toddlers into my car and let “Papa” navigate us an hour and a half away to Jackson. A few of the highlights were seeing the house were Grandma Pope grew up, the Jail where Papa grew up (upstairs from the jail, as son of the sheriff,) the Dam Store (ok that was just my personal favorite because it was called the Dam Store and it was next to the dam.) And the cemetery. Papa was the tour guide so I let him take the lead. When we arrived at the cemetery I thought oh my God, how will I keep my two toddlers in line at the cemetery?! But as Papa pointed to the grave stones of his mother and father, and sprinkled in nuggets of family history, or minutia that I love so much, like the fact that Papa served in the Navy and slept on the top deck of the air craft carrier because his top bunk bed was too hot, my toddlers were running, skipping, playing, and laughing in the grass and down the steps of the cemetery. It dawned on me that Papa wasn’t telling them to keep quiet and so neither would I. And I started to realize that a cemetery is a place that doesn’t have to be somber.
Similarly, this summer held many travel adventures for me, including taking my girls to North Dakota to visit my dad’s cousins and their families. Cousin Paul and Cousin Jan also led us to the cemetery where my grandmother’s parents and other family members were buried. Visiting the cemetery was a concrete way of saying “hello” to the past. (And it certainly helped that I could take photos of the gravestones of great-great grandparents so that I could remember names and which names go with which couples.) I noticed out loud that Uncle Ted was buried next to his first wife and asked Paul what Uncle Ted’s second wife thought of that. “She’ll be buried next to her first husband, too” was his response. Oh. Well that makes sense.
After a weekend in the mountains at our late friend’s favorite campground and a Sunday morning at church I got to thinking what God would think of our cemeteries here on earth. I wonder if he would shake his head chuckling that we spend so much time finding the right rectangle to place our bodies in after we are gone, making sure that we are lying next to our spouse. I wonder if he thinks, oh, you sweet, silly humans. If only you knew how quickly your time on earth passes in the grand scheme of things. In a children’s Christmas book I read about an angel explaining to a human how time passes – a human’s life is only a speck compared to the eternal life that awaits as life as an angel. Maybe God is sitting in his rocking chair giving his nod of approval of our carefully laid grids all while thinking, fine, fine, go ahead with that. You will one day find out that your time on earth was 1/8 of a blink of an eye compared to your time up here. And you spend all that time planning who to lie next to as a dead human. But when you arrive here, you’ll see we are all souls that love! One of my favorite lines in les Miserables is “to love another person is to see the face of God.” So, lucky for my great uncle who was married twice – he got to see the face of God twice.
I’m not making light of all of these big life decisions. I have it easy right now as a thirty-nine year old woman married to a great guy. But there are plenty of people out there pondering these big items. Which makes me wonder how God views us. Maybe the widow gets remarried and he thinks, Great! Maybe the widow never gets married and he thinks Good for her! My Grandma gave me a framed cross stich that said, “God is Love.” It is so simple. And I love it. And I believe it. Here on earth things can be perplexing – where to find that plot? Where to spread the ashes? To vacation in the same spot with a new spouse that you used to enjoy with a late spouse? But I like to think that one day, hopefully a long (earthly) time from now that it won’t matter because we will all be one big bucket of love up there. I’m rooting for my children’s Christmas book and for John Donne to have it right:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so …
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
Yes, I hope we wake one day eternally in that big ol’ bucket of love. That’s what I hope.