So fellow travelers, many years ago I bought my first house, a compact two bedroom cape at the edge of the city I still reside near. One day a few weeks after moving in, I took a walk around the area with my dog and discovered a cemetery about a half mile from my quiet little street. It quickly became my sanctuary for walking meditation, a practice I was just beginning to include in my routines.
Perhaps because I visited one often as a child, cemeteries have always held a curious place in my awareness. Certainly I sensed the aura of sadness and loss surrounding the adults during these solemn graveside visits, but my experience was infused with a deep feeling of mystery. Most likely this is because any questions I might have asked would have been answered with “This is not something we talk about.” So other than grasping the idea we came to honor people who were no longer alive, I was left to ponder on my own the significance of the vast variety of grave markers and tombstones, and wonder how those we honored knew we were doing so or for that matter exactly where they were, other than “no longer with us.”
One thing I did know with certainty from those visits was cemeteries are havens of bird habitat. Those Sunday morning visits might be the source of my initial interest in birds, because I remember seeing and hearing birds not found in our tiny backyard and wondering about them. So it is cemeteries still remain associated with mystery to me.
Since my mother-in-law’s death last year, I have become the person who, by both choice and default, tends to her grave.
I chose a simple flag to mark the site as Joan’s tombstone has not been set in place yet.
Each visit, I take some time to absorb the restful serenity of the sanctuary. It’s evergreens and ancient oak trees are prime bird habitat throughout the seasonal changes and I can always count on a few cheerful songsters greeting me as I walk the quiet paths.
On my most recent visit I noticed how many graves had seasonal decorations. Sparkling wreaths, miniature Christmas trees, artificial poinsettias (real ones would perish within hours in our chilly weather) and it occurred to me what I was seeing was a tremendous expression of love.
In fact this little community cemetery is full of grave sites that are decorated year round, vibrant statements standing in defiance of the emptiness of death. There is a feeling of tenderness which brings life to a place which otherwise would instill sadness. It’s truly a tribute of love’s power to transcend death.
Loss is pervasive
So is love its everywhere
even in graveyards
Over the years I’ve realized elaborate tombs and stone markers mean nothing to the deceased. Graves are points of reference, symbols to reassure the living that the dead have not been forgotten and tending to those sites is an active expression of love.
While there are also cemeteries in Asia, many Asians have small altars in their homes where the deceased are honored. My mom has one by a big window in their apartment. Small dishes of water, food or salt (a symbol of purification) are set before photos of my grandparents. I cherish the way this tradition makes the deceased part of the daily lives of the living, so I created one in my home too. It is a meaningful way to integrate loss and the process of grief into the fabric of daily life.
Tending my ancestral slater and mother-in-laws grave are both acts of love, different but honorable. In this holiday season when an empty chair at family gatherings hits hard they are reminders that love lives on in our hearts.
Walk gently on the path my friends and may adventure find you ready