My sister wants to visit the cemetery. While we haven’t been there in years, I knew which one she meant, and was instantly flooded with memories. And the memory of boredom.

Our first dad died when we were young. After that, every Memorial Day, there was a trip to the cemetery. Mom would cut huge bouquets from snowball shrubs and rhododendrons taller than the house eaves. Us kids were required to go along, and the car would be filled with the sickening sweet scents of flowers, sap from cut branches and buds, and crushed leaves. Under it all would be the subtler scents of earth.


Wikimedia Commons Image, by Fulvio Spada

At the cemetery mom used a screwdriver to pull up the vase that invariably would have become overgrown with sod during the previous year. We got to run to the nearby fountain to fill the vase and then mom would arrange the flowers. And then stand there. We were required to also stand there solemnly.

Holly dad Aunty mom Lisa Steven neighbor

The sister held by our first dad, with paralysis taking over his right side. Aunty next to him. Me, blurry with movement sitting on the back step. Our brother’s little butt. Mom in the doorway in the dark coat.

I used to wonder what she thought about, while us kids fidgeted and waited for the heavy sigh and sniffled tears that said, finally, we could race back to the car and go home. Move on to more important kid things. As I got older I also wondered if there wasn’t a tiny part of her that was aware of the image she presented to all the other annual cemetery visitors – the woman alone with small children standing by a grave. Did people wander over after we left, to see the name of a man who died too young, with his Navy insignia on the headstone? Did they wonder what his story was? If he’d died in the Korean War, perhaps, since the dates were right? Did their imaginations conjure stories for the grieving widow, still so loyal? For the fatherless children? Of course they wouldn’t know that there was a second dad at home, most likely pottering out in the garage enjoying the rare quiet, with pipe in hand.

Dad 1990 flood

Second dad. Can you see the pipe stem (unlit at the time) in his left hand?

Later, more graves came along. Aunty, who was more like a grandmother. Her brother, Harry, who lived with her the last year of his life. The one us kids heard coming down the stairs with his signature slow, heavy tread, a week after he died. A great-uncle notorious for never knowing his slacks were unzipped (much to our entertainment) and who got his point across by poking people with his cane.

I find old cemeteries more interesting than new ones. Nine Mile Cemetery in Wallace, Idaho, is up a steep hillside among tamarack trees. I imagine the people there enjoying the view for centuries, since they are almost buried standing upright.

There was one cemetery in Dumfries, Scotland where the headstones were six-foot long slabs with the person’s life story carved there, still readable two hundred years later. The stories they wanted us to remember, beyond just their birth and death dates. The things they were proud of that no one, today, would know.

One of our grandfathers was buried in a small cemetery at the top of a hill in eastern Washington. You can stand there in the trees and hear the wind in their branches.

I have grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents buried in one called Cherry Creek. It’s also on top of a hill, but in northeastern Montana, where it’s all high mesas and wheat. Wild roses and sunflowers grow around the headstones and you can see for miles. The tiny church there used to double as a one-room schoolhouse that our grandmother taught at.

Montana 07 036

Photo doesn’t show the steep hillside below the truck.

Montana 07 031

I spent an overcast day years ago wandering Clare Abbey, near Ennis, Ireland. It’s the ruins of a monastery built in 1194, with the remains of a cemetery inside its walls. The Abbot’s grave is a small mausoleum and the ancient doors had big, rusty door knockers. I never had the courage to knock.

Those old cemeteries have stories.


Clare Abbey, Wikimedia Commons, by Frank Chandler

Newer ones seem lacking in stories. Strategically placed water fountains, surrounded by small flat headstones that can easily be mowed over. I imagine the landscape crew gets impatient on Memorial Day weekends when they have to mow around huge bouquets of snowballs and miniature flags.

As I age, I find myself leaning toward cremation or the concept of green burials, where I can be placed out in the woods to decompose naturally and fertilize the trees. Of course there’s no profit for funeral homes in that type of burial so I doubt it will ever be allowed. It reminds me of a poem I read years ago about the business of dying, about how we have to pay to get our loved ones back.


Cherry Laurel tree


The kayak community here recently built a beautiful bench and hiked it in to a quiet place in the woods with a view of the river where our Sam used to kayak. That, to me, is a perfect, and heart-breaking memorial. That would be a place to visit, to remember. A place that symbolizes the person being remembered and brings that person back to mind, more than a generic square of bronze in a green lawn.

In the meantime, when my sister comes out here, I’ll drive her to the cemetery and we’ll wander together trying to find all the graves of family that we’re probably the only ones left who remember.

Maybe we’ll take flowers.

And I’ll try not to fidget.

Aunty and us Easter 2

Aunty with us (I’m in the middle)

4 thoughts on “Cemeteries

  1. I’ve always had a penchant for cemeteries. I tend to call them graveyards for some reason, probably a regional thing, and the more grown over and old the better. Your memories you’ve shared I’m sure are memories of many but still unique to you. Love the photo of the boy at the school desk (your son?) and what a beautiful way to remember Sam with the meditative bench.


    • I tend to think of the old ones as graveyards for some reason. Did you know there’s a whole study around funerary art and the style of headstones? That is my son in the Cherry Creek church, many years ago. It came out blurry because the only light was some sun coming through dusty old windows. But I liked how the wood looked so aged and warm in that light. You would probably like the Nine Mile cemetery in Idaho. It’s unique. Some of the older headstones have daguerreotype photos under curved glass. I wish I had a photo of that bench – it’s made out of branches so it looks like part of the woods.


  2. Ah, so many thoughts…
    I too have enjoyed many peaceful/contented hours exploring cemetery/graveyards and really enjoy the energy of such spaces. It’s one place where we give ourselves permission to really contemplate mortality.
    Some of the magic of cemeteries I think is that our entire purpose there is to think of and connect with those who have passed from this time/place. I love the idea of having stories connected with the deceased, it’s history and it’s important to remember.

    After Sam died we asked one of the kayakers who was with Sam the day he died to help build a memorial in the yard, with Sam’s kayak as the “headstone” if you will. I really appreciate having a place, just outside my window, that is dedicated to my larger than life son. Fred goes out each night to light candles, I fill in if he’s fallen asleep early. One day I looked out and saw several cars with kayaks on top, just like Sam’s, my breath caught and I admit that I cried a little as I saw the group of kayakers gathered around his kayak, having a moment of honor for Sam.
    The bench that we put up on Sam’s birthday was built by the same kayaker who made the memorial. He’s working out some of his grief by creating things of beauty. The bench is crafted from a cedar log and the ends are a root ball cut down the middle. The place that the bench is situated is generally arrived at only by water, a really really difficult passage. Getting to this place, called the lounge of legends, is a rite of passage. We bushwacked there and the route is so difficult and tough to locate that it will never be anyone’s destination. I would love to create a bench for Sam here on the Skykomish, his home waters.

    And Lisa, lucky you that green burial is a movement that is very strong here in the northwest. There’s a cemetery in Snohomish were you can be interred straight into the earth, to decompose naturally. I have a friend who was buried thusly last year.
    For interesting info on death, associated rituals and also the green burial movement check out Caitlin Doughty. She has a couple of books and does a youtube series called Ask a Mortician, very quirky and entertaining.


    • I love the idea of Sam’s bench being difficult to access – it becomes, in my mind, a secret garden out there, visited more by wildlife than people. To me, it will be a place of magic and stories. I remember reading a mystery series about a protagonist who studied the evolution of funerary art, which was fascinating. Sounds like Caitlin Doughty would be the same. I have found myself, a few times now, needing to drive by Sam’s kayak. I don’t know if the kayaker who put it up realizes how much it helps all of us on this grief path.


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