Tending the Graves

Eleanor Deckert

It is a gloomy time of year.

The night comes early. The sky is overcast. The golden leaves fall. Bony branches are exposed. The birds leave. The weather will soon render us housebound. Everything seems to be dark and gray.

Ghosts and zombies, skeletons and gravestones become lawn decorations during Halloween. November 1st is All Saints Day, to remember all those souls who are in heaven. All Souls Day, November 2, is to remember all who have died but are not yet in heaven. Unanswered and unanswerable questions are made quiet by faith, customs, ritual, and traditions.

Next comes Remembrance Day. The war dead are honoured with flags, flowers, drapery, processions, music, speeches, silence. Harsh, cold rain often chills the mourners. The Veterans are fewer each year. The poppies on our lapels, the dignitaries laying wreaths, the children's posters are small tokens compared to the great loss.

As the summer dies, our own mortality comes to mind.

In 2003, while travelling with my two teen-aged sons, we had an interesting experience near Dayton, Ohio. We climbed the stairs all the way up to the top of a cone-shaped mound. While we climbed over 100 stairs, my hostess explained that the Miamisburg burial mound is the largest of this kind. Archaeologists in 1869 excavated both horizontally and vertically to try to understand the type of burial and the Native American people who built it. When we caught up to our homeschooling sons, we asked them to name what other forms of burial they knew about. Around the world and back through time there are so many customs.

The mummies of ancient Egypt were wrapped, their organs preserved, exquisite ornaments, food, personal items and symbols of rank, even a boat to transport the person to the afterlife were included in the pyramids.

6,000 terracotta Chinese soldiers were part of the burial arrangements for Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who lived about 200 BC.

Funeral pyres in India are draped with garlands of flowers.

Upright stones in the shape of a ship mark Viking burials.

Tradition holds that Jesus was wrapped in a shroud and placed in a stone sepulcher.

An ossuary is a box carved of stone. After a temporary burial, only the bones are placed inside.

The catacombs hold hundreds of skulls in long tunnels constructed in Roman times.

A sky burial is practised in Tibet where the rocky mountains do not allow for underground burial.

Buried at sea is the custom for navigators.

Candles are lit every year in Estonia and a bon fire when people gather at the cemetery.

Ceremonial burial is one of the archaeologist's key discoveries and indicates 'civilization' reaching back 100,000 years. Grave goods, dressing and positioning of the deceased, markers and religious articles indicate deliberate burial.

I have a cousin who tends the graves of friends and neighbours in Dayton, Washington. With a watering can, trowel, shears and gloves, she kneels to prune, plant, weed and water. In the autumn she sweeps away the dry leaves. In summer she transplants colourful blooms. On holidays she adds a flag, a poem, a picture, or a traditional kind of flower. As I walked with her, she told stories, smiling, pausing, recalling interactions, grateful for kindness or teaching or laughter.

Today, as I mull over these memories, sensitive to my own aging, pondering 'the meaning of life' and also 'the meaning of death' I see the value in tending the graves. There is much said in our time about 'living in the moment.' Seen as a spiritual path, this frame of mind releases the person from the weight of the past and the worry of the future. Living in the moment? Only thought of the present? Animals do that.

Besides having an opposable thumb, the gift of speech, harnessing fire and developing writing, ceremonial burial is another way humans differ from animals. I think this is because we are aware of the past and the future while we live in the present. Honouring our ancestors. Anticipating our unborn descendants. Awareness of our own mortality.

I walk through the local cemetery. I see names of people I have known. I pause. I become aware of what they gave me, aware of the passage of time I am moving through, aware of my choices in this life, aware that I will someday step towards whatever comes next.

For a moment, I will live in the moment, while I tend the graves.