There was a gentle breeze which was nice, given that the day was warmer than usual for a November afternoon. I had traveled as part of the small procession, across town, through the hills and hollers, and onto a small country road, lined with trees so close I believe I could have touched them had I simply rolled down my window.
The road ended in a clearing, a quiet place surrounded by woods and a drive that encircled the cemetery. We parked and exited our vehicles, walking cautiously across the uneven ground toward the tent and chairs that sat awaiting our arrival.
I was friend rather than family, so I moved to the back for the brief service. It was truly a beautiful day, one of the few we had remaining before the rains set in again. It was why that day had been chosen. No one likes slogging through a cemetery for a service and Nature had, for once in her life, managed to grant a family’s wish. As I stood, listening to the music, listening as the minister read the obituary and began his remarks, my eyes scanned my surroundings. It’s what I do in cemeteries . . . looking for the old . . . looking for the unusual . . .
But today there was more to see than the monuments that were neatly scattered about. To one side sat an old brush arbor with benches stretching from side to side—the kind of shelter used by those who would come to honor their loved ones on Decoration Day—its ancient timbers hand cut and pieced together, forming a place of refuge from the blazing heat of the sun or the driving rain. When the circumstances allowed, I wandered from grave to grave, reading the names and the dates of birth and death that were all too often closely aligned. Several of the rows held multiple members of the same family, children laid to rest beside their parents—who rested beside their parents—generation after generation, their lineage proclaimed by the names and dates on their monuments.
I’m not sure I can find the words to explain how moments like this affect me. There is a peace to be found among the dead and as I moved from grave to grave, I was well aware of the sacred ground upon which I walked. Each monument represented a life—a life often filled with struggles and heartaches, but I’m sure, also moments of joy. The abundance of flowers spoke of the love and longing that were still evident, even, in some instances, after decades. Resting beneath my feet were people who changed the world around them—people whose passing was still being grieved and whose lives were still being honored.
In this time of thanksgiving, when the world as we know it tends to focus on that for which we are grateful, I would like to state that I will be forever indebted to those who have come before me—and not just those of my family. For everyone who struggled in life so others did not have to . . . for everyone who lived with honesty and integrity, who made a life through hard work and simple pleasures . . . for themselves and their children and their children’s children . . . I am grateful. I may not have known them personally, but I can know their stories, passed down through the generations, and those stories inspire me—and humble me when I think about how truly blessed I am compared to the hardships they often endured. And as strange as it may seem, I am grateful for their places of rest, for those places speak of their lives when all else falls silent, telling the world that they lived . . . and that to someone, somewhere, they made a difference.