The other day I took two of my friends to the cemetery, because where else would you go on a Thursday evening? I’m terrible at introducing living people to one another and when it comes to the people I want to introduce to my friends, it’s much easier to introduce the dead. So we went to the cemetery where I’ve spent Memorial Day mornings at the annual board meetings (it’s really a family affair), other days mowing the grass and picking up fallen branches, and spent time walking around with my grandpa, as he’s introduced so many of them to me.
Now writing that, it’s strange to be so well-acquainted with a cemetery, but it’s so wound up in my family’s stories and traditions that it’s always made sense. And there’s a tangible past, present, and future there that is both fascinating and terrifying if you think about it too long.
We started in the back, closest to the creek with the oldest graves and I showed them my great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents, William and Mary– who emigrated from Northern Ireland in the late 1700s. They had crossed the Allegheny Mountains on horseback with their two young children, William’s mother, sisters, and brothers to settle here. I wondered how much of their story is just as obscured as the eroded and moss covered names on their grave.
We continued to wander through rows, looking at names, finding their birth and death dates as the sun started to disappear into the woods on the horizon.
I stopped halfway through to tell them about my grandpa’s grandparents, John S. and Sarah McCready. John S. built the house that my grand uncle lives in, he farmed his entire life, and got to experience the change from a plow pulled by horses to green and yellow tractors that ran on diesel with the strength and stamina of many horses. And Sarah worked alongside him and–among many things–cared for her neighbors during the Spanish Flu in 1918. The stone beside them for their son, Donald, tells one of their sadder stories–where their nearly two-year-old son got into the medicine cabinet and died of mercury poisoning after two days in the hospital. I’ve found his death certificate and I’ve looked for the grief in my great-great grandpa’s smeared signature.
That took me to my great-grandparents’ graves, Pat and Aline, more recently etched with 2014 and 2019. They were people that I know for certain were real, while the rest are only stories to me. I remember hours of listening to my great-grandpa’s stories while he sat in his armchair beside my great-grandma. He talked about sitting on his great-grandad’s knee, who fought in the Civil War. During the Great Depression, he talked of the abundance they were blessed with and cherry trees full of red, ripe cherries. And it would spin into stories of their trip that he, his younger brother, and his parents won to go to the New York World’s Fair in 1940. My great-grandma would quietly listen, but interject if he ever depicted someone unfairly or exaggerated.
As I was trying to tell my friends about what I knew of these names and dates, I realized much of what I had collected and could recite of the top of my head were scraps of what I actually understood of them. Here, they are only marked by the day they were born and the day they died–it doesn’t even summarize the life they lived. And my scraps of stories only cover my own family. I know little of the majority of the other people buried there.
But somehow they all hold one thing in common: each one of them ended up in this tiny corner of the world–whether by birth or choice or both.
And although we’d like to think their lives were idyllic and simpler than ours, maybe that’s only because they’re the only ones we remember. I can imagine that there were arguments and anxieties in the midst of “unprecedented times.” They celebrated their joys, watched sunsets, heard the birds sing on spring mornings, and sat together in tiny living rooms and laughed. They must have also quietly carried their own griefs–the sicknesses, untimely deaths, and the regrets that they would never share with anyone. Those they took to their graves.
They were humans with mortal bodies and eternal souls. They impacted their families and their communities in both obvious and imperceptible ways. It’s unavoidable, because our lives– each distinct and unique–are still so tangled up in one another. Perhaps it’s only more evident in small towns or rural areas because the communal and family ties are so clear and grounded in a place.
In the place where I’ve been told so many stories, I know that I want to tell stories for the rest of my life, until I make the dead into people again. I may never truly resurrect them to meet them–to know their voice and the way they carried themselves–but if I can learn enough of their stories, perhaps I can recover their humanness enough so that the living can find some semblance of truth among the dead.
Even in their silence, the dead tell a story and it’s one we all echo in the end.