STORIES IN THE CEMETERY
By JIM NICHOLS
The sound was faint at first. As it became louder, we were able to sense some direction to it. It was coming near to us. Finally, not only could we hear the geese honking, but we could see a large group swooping from our back left to our front left. They were in the classic V formation, perhaps at least 50 of them. Against the cold blue sky, they were marvelous. Hearing and seeing them simultaneously was a striking image. As the group flew by, three individual honkers came from different directions. It was as if they had gotten lost or misplaced and were attempting to catch up and rejoin the group. Soon, their individual honks blended with the group sound as the new individuals merged into the formation.
Because the V formation is so obvious, humans have developed legends as well as scientific studies as explanations. Much of the science is clear. Measurements have shown that each flyer creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. This reduces the drag compared to flying alone and greatly increases the range of the group. When the lead goose tires, it falls back into the group. Honking may serve to help keep the flock together or ward off intruders. The whole activity is a fascinating example of animal behavior that leads to logical human extensions such as functioning better in community and encouraging (honking in the best sense) one another.
Suddenly, however, the group landed just over the rise in a large pond. The pond in this cemetery is surrounded by thousands of grave markers in an area occupying a large amount of land. Originally established as a memorial garden when this land was out in the country, the city with its highways and stores and busyness has now surrounded the area. It is truly an oasis of sorts.
My wife and I were there visiting the graves of our respective parents. I remember as a boy hearing about grown-ups visiting “graveyards.” I thought that sounded like a bad idea. What I knew about death and dying had come from spook movies that I had seen and for a grown-up to visit such a place voluntarily made no sense to me. But here we were in another town and doing exactly what had bothered me in the past. This was not the first time we have visited there; it would not be the last. Both my wife and I have purchased burial plots in that cemetery. Somewhere in the piles of paper at my home is a diagram of the cemetery with all the individual plot numbers and our two are marked. Right now, they are just green grass.
If you are still reading at this point, you may be thinking this is not a particularly uplifting article. I do not live at that cemetery and, frankly, seldom think of it. I do not believe Christians should fixate on the deaths of loved ones or their own. Because we are human, that generates fear and God does not want us to be fearful.
Scripture, however, does not avoid the topics of death and burial. People are born, die, and buried. It does us well to remember that occasionally. We were made from dust and to dust we will return.
Visiting our parents’ graves causes us to remember stories. That may be the most important part of a cemetery visit. As I looked around that large plot of land, those stones sticking up from the ground each represented a complex of individual stories, generally lacking meaning to me, but not to others.
At some distance from where we were standing, a small group of people was gathering. I wondered about it. It was not a burial activity, as such, but looked more like a party. The dozen people had brought folding chairs and were sitting and talking. I am guessing they were telling stories. They were almost within earshot of the geese on the pond.
As I turned around, I saw a grave marker that contained the name of a boyhood neighbor friend of mine. The marker had four names on it, including his. There was a story there that I wondered about. Following each name were dates; one date for the birth and one for the death. My friend was born the same year I was; he had died five years ago. Underneath his name was that of a female, apparently his wife; only her birth date was present with the death date still blank.
Next to those two were the names of two other females with the same last names as my friend and his wife. These two individuals had the same death date. However, one had a birth date indicating that she was 22 years old when she died; the other had a birth date indicating that she was 2 when she died. Clearly, this was the grave of my friend plus his daughter and granddaughter, both of whom had passed on the same day. They had died before he had. I was nearly overwhelmed by realizing the grief upon grief that those stories must have held.
We returned to the car and drove slowly through the winding cemetery roads. The traffic on the nearby highway was loud. The geese were swimming on the pond, perhaps readying for the next leg of their flight. We merged into the traffic and left the stories behind for a time.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.
Your article reminds me of two of my favorite poetry classics: Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” and Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Imagine the stories we could hear and the lessons we could learn from those who have gone before us.
Geese, such a sense of community, we could learn so much from them.
Then your cemetary reflections, very sad you found out about your friend this way.