Nostalgia Wax – The Local Cemetery

October is the flagship month of Fall, the season of the year where trees bloom a second time in brighter colors than the buds of Spring, where the hard-earned crops of Summer toil are brought to bear in harvest, and the land laughs a somber revel in the face of Winter’s bleak approach.

It’s a time for remembrance, where the dead are hallowed and the short days cherished, where in small towns and thicket hollows the rites of older times creep close to heart again, and even the necks of modern-minded men may feel the chilly breath of the world before.

And it reminds me of my childhood, and the years I spent among the stones and grass above the old and newly dead.

Maybe I’m just being thematic. This is  October, after all, a month that begins the death of the year and ends with Halloween, full of bonfires and scary stories, cold rain and midnight storms. Every other lawn seems to have a tombstone or two, so who can blame me for thinking about an actual cemetery?

Especially if that’s where I spent a lot of my early childhood.

My parents were gravekeepers, the folks in charge of trimming grass and tending stones, digging pits and tamping somber earth.

And I was the happy little kid they brought along.

 

I grew up outside of a small village of some couple hundred people (and that’s likely counting cats and dogs), on the old folks side of town on a patch of land that many readers would have thought a public park. It had rolling hills and well-kept grass, bright windmills, huge trees,  and was bordered by a blacktop and a gravel road that was lined with orange-fluted trumpet vines.

And across from my house there was a field, and across that a line of trees, and just above that were the tops of the old pines that watched over the local cemetery.

Though you couldn’t see it for the trees, it was there.

I don’t remember at what point I realized that it was the cemetery over there. You might think that such a revelation would color my perception of the place where I grew up, but there were already things to fear outside my window in the dark. Maybe I’ll tell you about those some day, but I’m well aware that stories such as those are only true to the people who want to believe, and to those they actually happen to.

But the cemetery, that was never really a scary place for me. Maybe I was too young to really think about it, or maybe it really was a peaceful area.

As such, this is more of fond remembrance than things to prick your nape, and my memory of that place is a mix of seasons, even if I think about it more this time of year. So if you don’t mind, dear readers, I’d like to ramble on and reminisce, and show you a side of the cemetery not often seen around this time of month.

 

How old I was, I don’t exactly remember, from a toddler to four or five or even six, it was a span of a few years that might have started spanning before I was born. I’ll have to ask my dad for sure. But it was for a few years and it started before I started school, and to this day when I visit there it stirs my memory more than flipping through a photo album.

Of course, there are very few pictures of me when I was young so I’m going by hearsay and word of mouth on that photo album thing.

There is a fence around this cemetery, and a farmer that lives on the edge just up the lane. Its other sides are fields and brush, with a stagnant green pond beyond one corner. The lane that leads to it is just a gravel track, and where it enters the gates the grass has overtaken the gravel, leaving little more than a suggestion of where to drive as it winds around and through the grounds.

And the trees that stand there today number at least one fewer than there were when I played there.  They were tall and lonesome, with their trunk wood haggard and their bark roughed from years of wear and weather. I couldn’t tell you exactly what kind of trees they are, at least from memory, but I remember the green needles of the bushy pine and the way it would shed before the snow, the feeling of its prickles in the grass, and the gaunt look of its empty boughs.

Empty, that is,  except for the small curving of a single branch within the tree, whose needles year by year refused to shed. They were always the last to lose their color, turning brown after the others had already fallen to the grass, and by the will of some strange nature they would either shed just before new growth or simply would turn green again in Spring.

But that was not the most peculiar thing of it.

The curving of that single branch, my dear readers, made the shape of a wreath.

And it was just above a row of tiny stones that marked the graves of  some children who had died in the very early days of the town. The larger main branch spread above it like a great arm to shade that spot, and the wreath of pine had grown upon it.

I barely remember the wreath, but I remember still.

And one day, when my parents were no longer the gravekeepers of that cemetery,  a man from town came and cut the wreath to take it home.  It was less than a week when the storm came, shuddering the night with heavy rain and screams of thunder. But for all the violence and noise that passed through, not much damage was done to the town itself, or at least not enough for me to remember.

But what I do remember is something that still remains fresh and vivid to this day, as whether by the chance of sheer coincidence or the workings of strange fate– the pine above the graves had been destroyed by lightning.

I have seen trees that have been struck by lightning, scarred by a charred streak that split them craw to maw. Some ruined by fire, some gored but standing proud.

This tree had been blasted.

I don’t remember much of the ruined trunk, but I remember the pieces of the tree. The lightning had not carved a channel so much as struck it like a stick of dynamite, exploding the wood to shards that cleared a hundred feet or more. I remember cold grass and Autumn leaves, tramping along as I picked up pieces, holding slivers as long as my hand. They still smelled of ozone.

Is that a ghost story, dear reader, or just a coincidence?

I’m not sure if I ever decided.

 

So there was one spooky story in this post. But so it is with rambling, that at times the words have a way of working on their own. I had meant to start with Spring, as that season was the shortest there, too early for much grass to mow and not enough trees to clean up scattered limbs.

But Summer, even though it’s not the time of year that springs to mind about that place, the memories there are more. It was a loud season, full of mowers roaring through the inching grass, both there and at home as my parents insisted every acre of their yard was to be kempt. I remember the smell of the cut grass, the feel of the hot wind and the touch of sun-baked stone on tender fingers.

And on very hot days, with a mix of fascination and horror I would watch armies of tiny red spiders swarm the face of some gravestones. They were terrifying, but almost cute, and the look of them on black marble was kind of marvelous.

Looking at them now, I’d say terrifying more than cute.

I also remember eating lunch while sitting on the cement step outside the small utility shed. I remember a few times when I would ask for fries from the only store in town, and how the styrofoam container would trap the steam to condensation. They were always soggy and bland, but I was stubborn sometimes.

 

The cemetery in Fall seemed different than all the other seasons, and I can see why so many legends associate it with the dead and the dim veil between becoming thin. Under the gray skies and the dim mists, with the chilly wind blowing through the trees and all the tombstones, the land seemed more alive.

If you want to know more about how I feel about Fall, kindly read about it here.

 

For Winter, you would think there would not be much to tell, but my dad reminds me otherwise. He’s been many things in his life, worked jobs from drilling oil to leading gangs of men repairing railroad tracks, been an electrician and a mechanic, a farmer and a self-educated scholar, drove bulldozers and trenchers and maintained them all himself.

My dad is a lot of things, and the reason he quit being a gravekeeper was because of Winter.

A grave is a thing that should be dug by hand, using strength of back and sweat of brow, a sturdy shovel and the will of man moving the good earth to honor the dead.

But that’s not easy when the ground is frozen.

I’m paraphrasing, here, otherwise there’d be a lot more swearing.

And when he finally did decide to quit, the town couldn’t find a replacement right away. And by right away, I mean that after he put in his resignation it took four years before he could actually quit.

My dad is an honorable man, and if he hadn’t stayed it would not have gotten done.

 

Did you know that there are different sizes of graves to be dug, depending on what kind of burial is being done? It’s not always just a casket in the ground, but a vault of things like concrete or even bronze.

And did you know that a lot of times a family will initially buy the smallest size, and then guilt or a guilting funeral director gets them to buy something bigger and more ostentatious that their dead relative probably didn’t care about?

Too many times my dad would have to go back and dig a bigger grave on short notice the night before the funeral. Eventually he just started digging the biggest size each time.

My dad is an honorable man, but he is also crafty. :)

 

And yes, the digging was sometimes done at night. This was only a side job for him, with his main job having a full time week during the day and even more if over time was offered. The cemetery tending was done in the evening, and during the night if need be, but often my mother took care of the mowing during the day.

I was usually there with my mother as she mowed, being both too young to help with the digging or to be out so late at night. But my brother was much older, and he would often help my dad in digging graves… at least at first.

One cold October on the edge of Halloween, in the middle of a dark night my dad and brother were digging a grave. They would hang a lantern at the top, which would give just enough light to see and to be safe, but shadows were thick in the pit and details obscured. But really, you weren’t there to read, you were heaving dirt.

And then my brother’s shovel sunk in to something that did not sound like dirt.

It was soft, but the noise shunked like a split melon.

In the dim light of the hanging lantern, he saw the shovel’s blade was smeared with blonde and rotten human hair.

That was followed by a terrified yelp and a mad scramble up the walls. When my dad investigated, he saw that my brother had actually dug into an old rats’ nest, and the blonde hair was just a mess of filth-plastered moldy straw.

My brother would still help my dad dig graves after that, but not during the night.

 

But while I remember those stories, I was most often there with my mother.

I remember my mother, and how much she loved to mow. I remember being told to be respectful of the dead, and to mind my step that I did not walk across the graves. It’s something with me to this day. I remember helping her move the flowers by the graves, taking care with each arrangement to set them aside until that patch of grass was mowed or trimmed, then carefully putting them back beside the stones.

I have to remember my mother. She was the reason I spent so much time in that cemetery, and she’s the reason I’m sad when I visit now.

~Matt Booker

3 thoughts on “Nostalgia Wax – The Local Cemetery

  1. I regret to admit it, but I did not give the grave tenders a second thought in the handful of burials I have attended. At least until recently, when everyone who was present for my grandfather’s interment were the same people present at the interment of my grandmother nine months before. Including the respectful, professional man, dressed to get the work done.

    Thank you for the window into s profession that most wish to push to the back of their minds.

  2. People attending funerals already have enough on their plate to worry about. I don’t think anyone would fault a person for not noticing all the things that go on mostly behind the scenes.

    And a lot of cemeteries I’ve seen in the past few years have graveskeepers that don’t seem to care as much. They dig out plots with backhoes and mow right over flowers and ornaments that aren’t on tombstones or stands. The backhoes I’m not fond of, but that’s probably just me being old fashioned. The lack of care to things people cared enough to put there, that’s disrespectful.

    But anyway, this was just me talking about some things I remembered. Hopefully entertaining, and a view on part of my childhood.

    Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    ~Matt Booker

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