Oh, let me like the righteous die,
and let their peaceful end be mine.
And let my happy spirit fly,
in the wind to dwell with thine.
HE CEMETERY'S OLD, uneven gates lower in the middle where they meet like a pair of shrugging shoulders. I approach and enter them, a timid young teenager afraid to live. Tall grass conceals gravestones, denying the dead their urge to rise again. Sharp blades sear the blowing wind as it reveals dates of births and deaths and epitaphs of lost lives etched eternally in stone. Trees overhang, praying and weeping over the hidden graves. They hang lower and lower after each assault of wind, scorning the ground they’ll fall on when each part of them dies, joining in death the peaceful bodies beneath the earth. Dry and dusty are the granite stones, cold as the night’s chill air. They’re slender chapels reaching into the sky, milky white like bones. The bodies below the earth are at rest, as are the tombs themselves. Amidst this silence rings a spirit, singing a silent hymn of life, reminding me that in this graveyard not everything is dead. And what’s not dead has a life all its own.
Somehow that thought doesn’t yet comfort me. As a child I’d dreamt of the cemetery very much alive, but the life was more of an animated death. Moving coffins, murdered birds, and other unspeakable illusions made up my dreams of the Burke cemetery neighboring my house. But I’m not dreaming now and nothing I see scares me, as I inch through the graveyard. Pinstriped men race new sports cars down the country roads. Gravel trucks and school busses rattle by, loud enough to wake the dead. But the dead don’t stir. The cemetery rests, its shape like a submerged whale in an ocean, and I balance on its back. The gates embrace the place, wrapping around the headstones like my rib cage around my breathing lungs. They hold the graves from falling down the hill. I look around, and do a quick headstone count. There are thirty-eight known graves, the oldest dating 1813, of Rozella A. Pennell. The latest burial was in 1936, of 88 year old Louisa Alice Clark. Next to her lies Richard Clark, with whom she birthed seven children, all buried on the hill before they turned eight. Their engraved names spell out a poem of a family not entirely known to one another, but loyal and loving nonetheless. Their bonds of blood are strongest, even beyond their earthly life. Had they not died so young any one of the seven children could well have been my grandparent. They might well have told me of the family I don’t know. Beside the Clarks, four other families now reside beneath the long blades of grass inside the fence. Some other graves stand all alone with no family but neighboring corpses, seemingly in lonely death.
I walk on, older now, less afraid of fear but still afraid of death. Sharing the name of the cemetery, the Burke family rests in the north. East of them and just outside the cemetery’s gates stands an old schoolhouse, now apartment house, still called the Burke School. It rises high above the graveyard and the two places watch each other, as they did in the 1800’s. And now they both stand, one with height and one with depth, two great reminders of times forgotten, of times I’ve never known. The Burkes’ epitaphs and dates of death are dark and unreadable. A coat of moss grows on their family stone, a deep green fuzz that tickles my fingers when I touch it. Can they feel my light caress? I’ve no doubt they can since the dead are seeming more and more alive the older I get. The rock for Nancy’s grave lays flat beneath the lawn, shaped more like a vault that’s come up for air, rising above ground like a drowned body floating in the ocean. The air is lighter above her grave, as if her breath from very shallow in the earth is seeping out.
When autumn strikes, dry leaves fall all around, forming a sea of yellow, orange, and brown. They bury the graves that bury the bodies, shriveling like an aging hand tightened into a fist. Their aroma scents the sky from where they are burned blocks away. The smell of Halloween leaks in, a blend of ashy leaves and candy corn. The trees grow bare. Widowed are their naked branches, some woven around in the light blue sky like a spider’s web, others like skeleton arms stretching as the boneyard yawns.
Like a falling leaf, I drift briskly along to the back of the cemetery. A prominent family resides there, all lined together like the rows in a church. They are the Helmicks. Eli Helmick’s grave is the only one in the cemetery sporting an American flag and stake distinguishing him as a veteran of the Civil War. On Memorial Day each year, three shots are fired by living veterans, rewarding him for his valiant efforts in defending the ground he’s buried in. With each thunderous shot his gravestone stands a little taller. He may be dead, but he’s still a soldier saluting to the sky, honoring his present world. He was only twenty when he fought in the brotherhood war. But he didn’t die until 1929, after he’d lost his wife, four sons, a brother, and two young sisters to the ground of Burke’s cemetery. Eli Helmick lived the hardest kind of life. He saw both his countrymen and family die around him. Still young myself, I cannot fathom death. All those Eli loved were dead. And now so too was he. But I still live, and visit him often, the way I’d visit a lonesome uncle to see his battlefield bayonets and pictures of those grandkids buried before him.
Two other Helmicks, Milton and Wilma are listed on the family marker as never having died. They were born over 125 years ago, and either decided to get buried elsewhere or still roam the earth today. Either way, their etched names and dates of birth cast an eerie shadow not accompanied with any dates of death. Their etched immortality is symbolic of the life that exists within this house for the dead.
Winter comes with its snowy coat and its icy breath. The graves huddle beneath the white sheet of thick snow, making the hill in Michigan seem like a mountain in Colorado. Freezing winds blow through the naked whistling trees. Snow piles on the sagging gates, making them dip until they’re as rooted as the tombstones in the earth. No one can enter or leave the graveyard, assuming anyone would want to do either. For months the cemetery sleeps, snoring as the winter wind wheezes through the trees Slowly, the snow thins, barely covering the cemetery like a veil barely hides the face of a silent bride. Patches of dull green grass and dark brown dirt sneak out.
When snow has covered the ground, I like to walk backwards to the graves to give the impression that the deceased have changed their mind and walked out of death. Seventy-year-old Henry Freed’s stone stands a slab white as cotton, almost as wide as it is long. His wife has the same shape stone, only hers is a mile west down Snow Road in an entirely different cemetery, so with my footprints he walks out of death to visit his wife.
Next to Henry’s grave lies Martha Tidwell, close enough to start the town talking. Her dark gray stone is slanted, rising up on the top like a gas pedal in a car she didn’t live to see. She’s dead at 44 for over a hundred years and counting. Years earlier forty-four seemed ancient to me And now it isn’t so far away. For years I’ve respected Martha, looked down to her grave like she’s a second mother, laying so close to Old Man Freed as if to spite all the gossip that’s been spread about her. She’s a woman brash and defiant even if dead.
The Green children, John A., John S., and Leora, aged three, two, and two, rest in the first row of the cemetery, their parents nowhere to be found. Leora’s stone is split in half, laying flat. For years it was buried beneath dirt, snow, and leaves. When I found it, I brushed it off with my slow, aging hands, like it was the grave of my very own daughter. The two Johns’ markers carry a lamb and a dove, signifying innocence. They are children for eternity, locked in their baby bodies beneath the earth. Walk after walk in the graveyard and they have become my own, like small little kittens that listen when I talk and curl and purr under my touch.
The sun breaks through the cold clouds in the beginning of Spring. A balding earth is unveiled, hard as rock until the sun gazes on it. Then the grass is born again, like the dead coming back to life. The blades kick through their earthy womb, uncoiling in the air to the sun’s seduction. Clouds overhead begin to weep, grieving over the graves of young and old alike. The sorrow purifies the cemetery, cleansing it of its need for showering grief. Slowly, the soil drinks this rain and when the sun returns, absorbs its warmth. The tears dry. The birds return, singing softly a hymn of life renewed, of life eternal. Branches extend the trees’ new leaves, a light pale green cover with sunlight shining through, like a stained glass ceiling in a church. The leaves spread like protective wings, trapping in the sun’s warmth.
My pace is slow now, willful and deliberate, finding those buried further south on the side of the hill. The Sylvester family stone is the tallest of the cemetery, reaching like a Roman column into the clouds. Darius and his wife, Sarah, both died at the now young age of 49. Their first son only lived for five months, their second for seventeen years. They live now only in the lines of their names in stone, and under the earth that holds many other of my children. The Helmick children are there, along with the seven Clark kids, their graves apportioned out like the squares of a game of hopscotch. Healthy grass grows over them, covering them from the still chilly air above ground. The wind blows through it like hair, long and growing through the warm spring months. In the world of the living, not a peep is heard from the Sylvesters. The hopscotch game is silent but never over.
Above them, summer prevails. Sunlight and warmth abound. The cemetery is illuminated by day, tepid and cozy by night. Grass grows long underneath the sweltering leaves. And soon the sun becomes an oven, baking anything in its sight. The short lived leaves protect the cemetery from this heat, paying with their mortality. They drink the poisonous heat, and it draws their life from them. They die in honor to join the revered dead, becoming part of the very ground that houses the sacred memories of many lives. Some lives were as long as 89 years, like that of the decorated soldier Eli Helmick, watching all those younger than him perish. Others, like the Green babies, hardly lived at all. Now these bodies are covered, memories intact, by leaves, by grass, by dark drinking soil. Maimed limbs of the trees above strangle in the cool autumn air. Their twigs etch out in the blue sky backdrop the memory of the life that once was there, and with their buds they form the image of the life that will live again. The cemetery huddles under its guards. Covered and protected, there will never again be death for those already dead.
My dreams of long ago were right. There is life in the cemetery, but not phantom life to fear. Life dwells in the cemetery’s nature. Grass from ground, leaves from trees, rain from clouds, all of these cycles stop the cemetery from dying. They’re the cycles not only of nature but of myself as my life has been one long reflective walk through the cemetery. My once smooth skin has dried up and wrinkled. My once light hair has darkened and thinned as the seasons of my life have progressed. What I once felt as the fear of death is now a solemn comfort for the thought of rest in peace, not because I haven’t loved life. But because life has stopped loving me.
My grave is in the middle of the cemetery. My name is deeply etched on a cold slab of stone in the middle of my entire family. They’ve been waiting for me, and I, for them. Slowly I lay back and begin to hear the soft chuckle of my eternal children. The ground is cold so I gather the soil close to cover me like a bedsheet. It covers my eyes and all goes dark, quiet. I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Uncle Eli. He wants to show me his wartime bayonet. I smile and take his smooth hand in my own. He says there are some people I should meet. So I drift away with him, as my epitaph reads, a happy spirit into the wind.
© 2004. Jennifer Gardner