Where my driveway ends, a cemetery begins.
Learning to see the living among the dead.
We live next to a cemetery—not nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. This is not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery, complete with a multi-level mausoleum building and a sign with the phone number for the sales office. After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence. I’ve embarrassed myself more than once by revving up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.
When guests at our home ask how we feel about having such a site next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.”
We treat the cemetery as an extension of our backyard, a shady place for a quick walk or pacing phone call. In winter, when the sun tilts toward the southern horizon, it foregrounds an almost daily flash of blinding beauty as I prepare dinner at twilight.
In the spring, the cemetery—somehow both ironically and exactly as expected—comes to life. Trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins. Tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any birds unwary enough to land on the ground or jockeying for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, nests of red-tailed hawks, clutches of barred owl eggs, and even one litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area, five miles from any truly open country.
In every season, the cemetery is a present, patient, faithful memento mori that demands it not be passed off as a mere park. At the top of the hill are the original burials from the 1847 cholera epidemic that occasioned a new cemetery, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates. Civil War veterans share this high ground with those who didn’t live to see the battles that raged a mile away on Missionary Ridge.
Further down, adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze and gilded lettering blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and frost and diesel soot slowly unpolish their expensive stones.
The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.
Historic significance and future preparedness give way to a more direct wisdom, or at least hint at stories, among the crab-grassed rows of individual graves.
The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—still roams the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.
A marker for a young woman of twenty-three who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”
Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs marks the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays were their death days, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. The lamb silently invites us to share in grief and support.
The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general state of disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who gave the original farm plot sold the property and outsourced its management. Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt leftover from recent burials lies in repose as a four-foot mound at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.
And yet, I can’t stop walking among the stones, picking up sticks and trash, righting a tilting vase here and flicking off bird droppings there. Here among my neighbors, I have often wondered how it is that so much of our time and work is spent looking forward. We strive for better homes, better churches, better jobs, better schools, better lives for our kids, better technology, more knowledge, better health, more justice, but so did they in their time and in their ways. Pressing forward without holding improvement in tension with the grave compounds frustration with despair.
The cemetery calls me to dwell on resurrection—to recognize the limits of my effort and the wonder of what will one day be true. Without death, there is no hope of resurrection.
Wendell Berry writes of the economy of soil that, “all bodies . . . are indissolubly linked in complex patterns of energy exchange. They die into each other’s life, live into each other’s death. They do not consume in the sense of using up. They do not produce waste. What they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind. And this exchange goes on and on, round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures. The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life . . . . Within this powerful economy, it seems that death occurs only for the good of life.”
This he calls the principle of return—the completion of a moral order that allows the production and consumption that we think of as “life” to continue. Living here, I can’t help but think that something of this “return” operates at the level of the soul as well. Their stories are part of my story, and their stable presence renews me in the cool of the evening while I process life decisions and disappointing days.
My wife has said often that she’d like us to be buried here someday, in our “backyard.” Most days, I think she is joking, but sometimes I’m not so sure. After all, we’ve gleaned here, it almost seems fitting to imagine contributing our stories, too—to return a little of the life we’ve received back to this place.
 Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1977), 90.
Cover image by Fabrice Nerfin.