Don’t be afraid to visit cemeteries

She was a very little girl at the time. But long before that, I had discovered that very little girls sometimes have very big questions.
That day, I saw the thinking happening, as the little face wrinkled with perplexity. Then suddenly, she blurted out, “Where do people go when they die?”
It was a straightforward question, and I though it demanded a straightforward answer, so I said simply one word, “Heaven.”
Now she screwed her face up even harder and spoke with emphasis. “Well, I don’t want to go there!”
Trying not either to laugh or be shocked, I asked, “Why in the world wouldn’t you want to go to heaven?”
Without hesitating a second, she declared, “I’ve been there and I don’t like it!”
What followed was a conversation designed to help me discover just what her definition of “heaven” was, and exactly when she thought she had been there.
It took only a few sentences to understand that she was talking about the graveyard and how much she hated the prospect of ever being buried in the ground, with only a marker to show that she had once existed.
Her confusion was easy to understand, for one of our favourite ways to read the history of any new community was by the names and dates on the tombstones.
Needless to say, the emphatic conversation ended our study of cemeteries for a few years. But last week once again, we picked up the tradition by visits to a series of cemeteries in the northeast. Only this time, they were cemeteries that really mattered.
We began in the foothills of the Adirondacks in beautiful Lewis County, N.Y. where I grew up. There, we found more than 200 years of history, from tiny forgotten graveyards along the roadside to the elegant and private burial site of lumber baron Theodore Basselin.
Next, we went to eastern Pennsylvania to visit the ancestral graves of my husband’s family.
It was sacred ground we walked on as we remembered the great-great-great-grandfather who had lived and worked in this community, beginning in the early 1700s. And we knew within our souls that unless you know your roots, you will never understand who you really are or could become.
But the most moving cemetery of all to me was the one in upstate New York beside the church I attended as a child. There, I walked with reverence between the rows, past the graves of my father and mother, and Aunt Saviera and Uncle Aaron.
Aunt Rachel and Aunt Naomi. Aunt Malinda, Aunt Netta, and Aunt Anna. My uncles and cousins. My friends and the parents of my friends. The people who told jokes and the people who preached sermons.
The people who hugged me as a child, and the people who followed my maturity with interest.
It was an experience of great sadness–and of great strength. And I wanted to stay as long as I could. Those people are my roots. They are part of me now, and they will strengthen me forever.
A cemetery is not a fearful thing so don’t be afraid to visit the cemeteries that matter to you. Spend time enough to get beyond the sadness.
Rediscover and appreciate the people of your past–the wonderful people who will always be part of you and will strengthen you forever.

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