In Honor of Family and Friends on Memorial Day
No one left to remember
A Memorial Day tribute
I spent most of my time Sunday either at cemeteries or on the road to cemeteries in honor of Memorial Day. I drove my parents through four cities to pay tribute to lost loved ones. There is a graveyard behind their house in Lawrence, but we also visited Ottawa, Scipio and Garnett—all small towns in eastern Kansas. (It should be noted that a short distance west of Lawrence is the famous Stull Cemetery, but fortunately a trip to the source of numerous urban legends was not on the agenda.)
It didn’t escape my notice that it takes longer to visit grave sites on Memorial Day weekend than it used to. More friends and family members have passed away. I recognize death is the inevitable end of the life cycle, but the task of visiting more graves than ever before seemed daunting. It was a challenge to remember both where those who passed away long ago are buried, and also to find graves I had never seen before, trying desperately to recall details from funerals attended earlier in the year. It is a solemn duty, but it is also a task that offers a sense of inner peace. Visiting the grave sites of over a dozen family members and several friends somehow made me feel connected to forces greater than myself. It was a nice day.
My journey began in Ottawa, where I paid tribute to my grandfather, an aunt who died as a teenager a year before I was born, and two different great-aunts and uncles. My father is 91 and didn’t want to walk much, but he got out of the car to put flowers on my aunt’s tombstone. Mom’s little sister was very dear to both my mother and father. Another relative drove into the cemetery directly behind us, and took a few moments to chat with my parents. On our way out of town, we stopped at the grade school my mother attended approximately 70 years ago. As I strolled about looking at this beautiful old building, I noticed a collection of writing assignments scattered on the grounds, written by a third grader named Cole. He wrote of bicycle mishaps and Halloween parties and I suspected that, in some ways, this young boy was very much just like the children my mother went to school with in the 1930s.
Two aunts and uncles were buried in Garnett. Their graves were among the hardest to find, and visiting them seemed a bit sad for me. I noticed with interest that my aunt died on the birthday of her husband, who passed away earlier in the year. I enjoyed their company greatly and miss them at family gatherings. They were always so appreciative of opportunities to spend time with family that they were a joy to be around. When I visited the tombstone of another aunt, I noticed a wide crack stretching downward from the top of the marker. It was sad to see her grave marker damaged, but at the same time it added something unique to her resting place.
Scipio is a small town between Ottawa and Garnett and is the birthplace of my father. The cemetery is behind a church with a towering steeple that can be seen from miles away. This tiny graveyard at the end of a rock road is the final resting place for many of my ancestors including my grandparents, their parents, and several aunts and uncles. Many tombstones date back to the Civil War, and it is a strange feeling to look at some of the oldest grave markers. Seeing these old, ornate monuments compelled me to wonder what the lives of ancestors who died decades before I was born was like. How did they live, and under what circumstances did they die? I was saddened to notice how many markers honored boys and girls who lived for only days or weeks. There were far too many of them. I also wondered about the graves without flowers or balloons, standing in honor of men and women who passed away so long ago that no one remembered them any more. I placed a few flowers on graves of ancestors who died before my father was born—it seemed right to honor them, even if they died over one hundred years ago.
My travels ended where they began—in Lawrence. My grandmother, my brother and a close friend are all buried here. My grandmother and brother rest approximately 100 yards away from my parents’ back yard, which makes it quite easy to stop by for an occasional visit. My father chose not to get out of the car this time—the death of his oldest son is still painful to him. (This graveyard also happens to be the final resting place of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.) My friend is in a small cemetery down the street. His tombstone is most unique and was crafted by his sister—a beautiful tribute I know he would approve of.
After my journey ended, I felt calm and at peace. It was a day not of sad remembrances, but of happy ones. In a way, it felt similar to family reunions I attended when I was younger. I would like to believe that all the family and friends lost to death over the years are celebrating somewhere. There is something comforting in such an image. I just hope the party is still going on when I get there.
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