We could barely go to a church function without brushing shoulders with the cemetery, set hard by the church building as it was, right there in the churchyard, just near where we played Pom Pom Pull Away during Vacation Bible School each summer.
The names on the stones were the names of our neighbors. It never seemed odd to me to wander quietly through, reading dates and names, trying to see how many of them I could identify: which farm did she live on? is he related to me? was that someone Grandpa knew?
The familiarity of those grounds didn’t reduce the sorrows of separation when it was my own dear Dad whose body was laid to rest fifty years ago next week. The service was populated, as was usual in those parts, by pastors, singers, organists and food servers I had known since I was born. After the service, the basement was filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, brothers, sisters, friends, classmates.
When the meal was served, the tables filled with laughter and shared stories and memories, creating new memories at the same time. By that time, the casket had been lowered into the prepared grave. The Montana dirt clods had been thrown back over it all, covering it and lifting toward the sky as they would until the rains came and settled it all in. The flowers were arranged over the top of the fresh-turned dirt, still fresh-looking. Still fragrant, a perfect imitation of live flowers. Still beautifully arranged, but quite dead.
After finishing my meal, I leave the church basement and make a visit to the outhouse. Since it’s still chilly spring it isn’t necessary to check for snakes behind the door as I duck into the two seater. Leaving the outhouse to return to the church, it’s only a very slight detour of 30 feet to go back and stand–alone now–by the fresh grave. Somehow I want Dad to know that I am not leaving him out here alone.
Then the blessed but still lonesome disconnect confronts me, and there is nothing to do. I can’t fix it. My father, alive in Christ, is most certainly not dead. But my earth Dad, body ravaged by cancer, is most certainly dead to this life. And he is not here.
He left three days ago, early in the morning, as I sat by his bed in his hospital room. He just left. With an incomplete story and a fractured heart, I don’t know what to do with the phrase that somehow now seems to speak of him, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here.
Thirty-five years later, in February, I stood in that familiar cemetery again as Mom’s body is laid to rest and again we sing:
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain;
but we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.
Painful surprise. I feel orphaned. Even with childish fantasies evaporated, the heart persists in longing for what is gone. And now the focus shifts forward. This was not their final home, and it is not my final home either. It is still my earth home, but it’s no longer theirs. They were my earth parents. But no more.
At Mom’s funeral service the pastor referenced all the wonderful trips she and Dad had taken in the 1950’s across the country, and told how she had often talked about Dad still planning a trip to the Grand Canyon when he died in 1962; how she enjoyed the trip to the Holy Land in 1972 with her sister, and still talked of traveling until finally, as he described her longings, “there was only one place left to go.”
This Montana cemetery has some hollyhocks. Some lilacs. Some crocuses. Some meadowlarks. An occasional robin when there has been fresh rainfall. It’s still a place of familiarity and memories that speak of those dear hearts and gentle people. But it is, after all, not the final stop. It is not even a passing destination. It is only the place where the used-up husk is laid aside until it’s time for it to be raised up in newness of life. And in the meantime, The Child moves on toward Home, the only place left to go.
That cemetery and those whose husks lay there taught me not to fear death. It also taught me that death will not be evaded and cannot be avoided, but it has always had to fall silent in the face of the Giver of Life who stands among those graves, near those stones marked with my parents’ names and He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Yes. I do.
There’s a cemetery in Otter Tail County, Minnesota that will hold my Earth Suit some day. Whoever may walk through that cemetery will be able to trace family names that go back to the 1800’s, identifying grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, infant cousins and cousins who died in their 40’s. When This Child has only one place left to go–and my husk is laid there–the Giver of Life will also stand among those stones, speaking to those who may kindly accompany my husk to its place, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
I won’t be there, of course. But I hope the weather is pleasant and, if it’s summer time, a meadow lark or a robin would be nice.