May 31, 2012 in Washington Voices

Front Porch: Cemeteries hold more than deceased

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Several years ago when I was back home in Miami, I stopped by the cemetery where my father is buried. Though I go to Florida reasonably often, I don’t usually visit the cemetery there, but it occurred to me that maybe I should, if just to check on things.

It had been decades since my last cemetery visit, so when I got there, a lot of the features I remembered weren’t there anymore. The hedge was gone. The little pond was gone. I couldn’t find my father. I panicked. I’d read about nefarious things that can go on in the mortuary/cemetery business, and I envisioned my father dug up, discarded and his plot resold to someone else.

Fortunately, my college roommate was with me, and she calmed me down and solved the problem. We had gotten bum directions from the cemetery office, and armed with a correct site map, we found the gravesite – as intact and in-place as it was 40-plus years ago when my father was buried there.

I recalled this experience a few days ago, over the Memorial Day weekend. Established as a time of remembrance for fallen Civil War soldiers, Memorial Day has come to honor the ultimate sacrifice of all American soldiers of all time periods who died in service to their country. Cemeteries everywhere are decorated with American flags. I think it’s been expanded further, in general practice at least, to also include remembrances of all our departed loved ones, whether or not they served in the military. Just witness how many people incorporated the taking of flowers to the graves of mothers and sisters, children and grandparents, as they partook in other activities over the three-day weekend. Seems to me that’s OK, too, and doesn’t dilute the honoring of our military dead.

Even as I was thinking about all the cemetery visits taking place, I knew that I wouldn’t be one of the visitors – even though my mother is buried at the nearby Spokane Memorial Gardens. She moved to Spokane after my father died and had wished to be buried here, which she was when her time came. She had always been in a quandary about whether to move my father’s remains here but could never decide what to do, especially since my father loved Florida so much. So she left it to me to figure out after she passed away. After quite a bit of soul-searching, I elected to leave everyone in place.

Perhaps there is something lacking in me, but I’m not much of a gravesite visitor. Oh, I go to my mom’s grave every eight years or so, mostly to check on things, but if I want to have a conversation in my head with my mother or my father, I do so wherever I happen to be at the moment. I don’t need to be standing by a patch of earth to make that happen or to make me feel closer.

That’s kind of odd because I really like cemeteries. I think they are fascinating places. I’ve written many, many stories for this newspaper about some of the headstones and interesting people buried underneath them in the assorted cemeteries in the area – like one of President Lincoln’s bodyguards, a nephew of one of the explorers on the Lewis and Clark expedition, Chief Garry, Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Amos Bradley, Gov. Marion Hay and others.

When my sons were young and taking piano lessons at Fort Wright-Holy Names Music Center, we’d drive by the cemeteries along Government Way. Always one to be early to everything, sometimes I’d drive through the cemeteries to take up a bit of time. I’d have the boys scout things out. Sometimes I’d turn them loose and ask them to try to spot the oldest birthdate they could find on a marker or maybe the most elaborate stone or maybe someone who’d lived 100 years. Then we’d talk about what they found.

Some of my friends found this weird. And maybe I am weird, but if I am, it’s not for this reason. Cemeteries are repositories of history, and what better place to learn about the history of your own region than to visit one or more of its cemeteries? There are great commemorative monuments to see here, like the one honoring victims of the Titanic. And there are worth-doing events, like the summer historic tours in which people dress in costume and stand by the gravesites of the people they are depicting to tell their stories to those who stop by.

But personal visits for personal reasons, not for me. And yet I was positively light-headed and wobbly when I thought my father was no longer where I thought he was. Apart from the possible crime I was envisioning, I realized that it was important to me to know that my mother and father are somewhere – at least that their remains are located safely in some specific place, whether I choose to visit or not.

That’s odd, too, because in truth, I know where they really are. They are in my heart, and I keep them safe there.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ comcast.net.

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