While passing through, don’t forget to stop and visit

| Father Joseph Gillespie | May 23, 2013 | 0 Comments

Discovering his mother’s grave was not as simple a task as my friend had imagined. Finally, we headed to the cemetery office to expedite the search. The office building was rather imposing, befitting the reputation of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif. The staff member suggested that we come back on the following day, since the cemetery would be closing in about an hour. I mentioned that we were leaving the next day and just passing through. Without any hint of humor, he looked at me, and said, “Aren’t we all, aren’t we all . . .”

Cemeteries, famous or not, provide a place where the living can visit the dead. The time-honored rituals of visiting the graves of relatives and friends create opportunities for remembering the lives of those who have given us birth, shared our human journey, laughed and cried with us, loved or hated us, married or divorced us, died for us, soothed our fears or ruffled our feathers. Cemetery visits allow us to run the gamut of our emotions, exploring grief in all its complexities.

We soon learn that our grief or our joy is tempered by our sense of loss, or relief, and that our theologies and human skepticism are confronted in these hallowed sanctuaries. In her poem, “American Primitive,” Mary Oliver advises “. . . that to live in this world you must be able to do three things; to love what is mortal, to hold it against your bones, knowing our own life depends on it; and then, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”

Visiting cemeteries allows us to animate our dormant feelings about our own immortality, to sense the tangible absence of those who were so intimately bound to us, and then, in faith and hope and with ambivalent love, acknowledge their presence in a new way as we let them go.

Family stories

Having grown up visiting the dead at St. Mary’s Cemetery in South Minneapolis, I always enjoyed the time with my parents as they respectfully cared for the graves of their parents, siblings, relatives and friends. More than tending to the flowers or trimming the grass around the markers, it was the conversations, the spoken and unspoken memories, the laughter and the tears accompanying the stories, that allowed me to meet so many of my relatives who had died years before I was born. Generations of family members came alive, the stories of hardship, survival and stedfast faith in God helped to weave wreaths of memories that would adorn my imagination and allow me to meet the living among the dead.

After my father died, my mother would jokingly ask me whether I would be visiting her at her new address after she died. As usual, on April 17, I visited my mother’s new address on the 15th anniversary of her death. I’ll probably be visiting again on May 28, a date that is both her birthday and the anniversary of my father’s death. Birth and death, the two great brackets of our existence, rolled into one date of remembrance.

Visiting the cemetery offers us a chance to be grounded in time and place, to sit or stand while we search for living memories of the dead. It is true that we are all “just passing through” this world, but it is nice to have a permanent address where family and friends can visit and know how good it is to be remembered.

Recently, I drove by St. Mary’s, and not having time to stop, I gently tooted my horn, knowing that if I was not careful, I might wake the dead. I smiled as I recited out loud a favorite poem by Billy Collins:

“In a rush this weekly morning

I tap the horn as I?sped past the cemetery

where my parents are buried

side by side under a smooth slab of granite.

then, all day long, I think of him rising up

to give me that look of

knowing disapproval

while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.”


Father Gillespie is pastor at St. Albert the Great, Minneapolis.

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Category: Memorial Day