Cemeteries. Dark, gloomy places to avoid. A reminder that life ends. Are those your thoughts? Then come visit one with me. Cemeteries are for the living and a visit challenges us with our life’s plans while also sharing lessons on history and society; I believe that emphatically. Recently, while there with my dear wife to visit graves of her parents, the sense of the meaning of life eternal permeated my thoughts.
We are visiting Collamer Cemetery in Central New York, the future place of my eternal home on earth. To help you view this rural resting place, Collamer was formed as a community in 1780 with six log cabins, yet has not existed as a hamlet for many generations. All that is left are the cemetery itself and the Collamer United Church (which itself dates from 1828), sitting quietly along a lightly-traveled two-lane road. Telling the history of a cemetery is important, as that sets the stage for what residents may discover there.
Walk with me as we experience what the cemetery tells us, beginning at the newer area and proceeding to the older part. Our first stop is at the graves of my wife’s parents. Being on my knees as I clip away weeds around the marker and plant flowers, we reminisce on the experiences shared with each of them: the confidence my father-in-law expressed in me, his excitement in taking me to his office after our engagement to introduce me to his associates, the help they gave us in the early years of our marriage, and so many other memories. In being there, they re-emerge to relive those experiences more strongly than had we not been there. Knowing we have those who went before us who cared for us gives us strength in our daily pursuits. Elsewhere here are graves of uncles and aunts and grandmothers and a grandfather of my wife’s. My eternal place here will be an outsider, introducing a new surname into family history there.
Some graves pose a story. We stop by a grave marker with the image of a race car. A young man. Did he die doing what he loved? Does the image of a car reflect who he was? He had a story to tell and I would have wanted to hear it. He lives on, so long as he is remembered.
A small marker: Nov 19, 1961 – Nov 20, 1961. A girl. A life of one day. A sadness beyond words. As I view that marker, I feel my own life challenged. So many thousands of days I have lived, yet have I accomplished more than this child in her one day? Nearby another marker: Dec. 9, 1962 – Jan. 13, 1963 OUR SON. Such grief the parents must have felt, to know their child for a month and to lose him. In the disappointments in our lives, have we felt such as this? An overwhelming sadness to visit here, knowing those families continue elsewhere in their struggles to find solace in this world after loss of a child.
WIFE. The only word on a small marker from the 1800s that lies near a large impressive stone of her husband. To have lived her life and to support her husband and to bring children into their lives and to be remembered only by WIFE. A reminder that women have struggled in finding respect for being members of humanity. My heart wishes to know more about her, her name, her dreams from childhood, her favorite songs—yet all we have is WIFE, and knowledge that she lived in a rural community called Collamer. One life she had, and all we know is WIFE.
Pinwheels! We stop at what appears as a celebration of love and also deep, tragic sadness. The grave of a five-year old girl who died fifty years ago, yet her grave is adorned in pinwheels and dolls this day. Despite death, this child lives deeply in the hearts of her parents. A child forever, a child forever loved, with parents celebrating the life that lives only in their dreams. That child made a strong impression in her few short years that created a world of memories never lived. Have I made that impression in this life? Would anyone celebrate at my grave after fifty years? I think not, yet the message to make each day matter speaks loudly to me as I observe the pinwheels spinning in the breeze.
Moving into an older section, a weathered sign stands by a grave: Grand Army of the Republic. The stone below reads Company E, 97th New York Volunteers GAR. Who was this soldier? His grave mirrors several others here from the GAR, and my later investigation shows the group was formed over sixty miles distant, a long journey in the 1860s. A world opened to this soldier that can only be imagined. The 97th saw action at Antietam, Sharpsburg, the Battle of the Wilderness, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and more. The unit was also present at Appomattox Court House for the surrender of General Lee. His story is there, just waiting to be read. And here he rests in the shade on a rural road, obviously proud of his legacy from a time we no longer understand.
Farther into the older section are faded markers from the Revolutionary War, barely readable, yet monuments in themselves to our country’s past. What might they tell me? Possibly on another visit. I stand in awe to be here, as George Washington lives in their presence.
Nearby stands a family grave site, a tall monument proclaiming the names of what was likely a prosperous family, surrounded by markers of its many relatives, all surrounded by what was once a chain fence. To me, a reflection that leaving an impression for others to remember us was once a popular view. These were probably well known and respected members of the community, leaving me wishing to know their untold story.
Each of these stories I share reflects the life that is ever present in this world, being told from yesterday. To a passerby, this land is just some old gravestones among the weeds along a rural road. To me, this is a sanctuary of reverence, reflection, and life.
Our final stop is a small grassy area surrounded by grave markers on all sides. A grave unused. Ours. For my dear wife and for me. Someday for me, someday for all of us. What will my grave say to the world? Who will come and say “I knew him”? And does it matter, as I will not be here? It matters. To be remembered is an inherent desire in us all, if only for a day. For our stories are being written in the days we are here, not after we’re gone.
On leaving, I rejoice on life and the memories of those who went before, reassured that the cemetery will continue to tell stories to all who ask. But first we must ask.