In the beautiful rolling hills of middle Tennessee, I have been given the use of over a thousand acres of old farmland. Creeks and waterfalls too numerous to mention, meadows, forests, and wildlife of all types. Fox, wildcats, deer, turkeys, turtles, fish, hawks, eagles, vultures (who have their own home - an abandoned farmhouse), snakes, lizards, and coyotes to name a few. Wildflowers beyond measure. The farm represents a consolidation of five farms put together a quarter of a century ago by a couple whose acts of philanthropy are, among other things, preserving the land and protecting it from development.
We have named her the Green Cathedral. For me, the best kind of cathedral. No ceiling, no floor, no walls, windows or doors. Amazing things have happened there for people I know and love during the time I have known her. I am just the most recent custodian of this amazing edifice. As often as I can, I try to convince my clients to meet me there. It is my new office.
It has been inspiring to explore every nook and cranny of her. A few days ago, a friend and I stumbled upon an ancient graveyard rumored to exist but the exact whereabouts unknown. Nearly forgotten, totally neglected, abandoned, untended for decades. I was reminded that old cathedrals often have grave sites in and around them; of course, she would have hers. We found a few headstones, took a few pictures and left.
A few days later I had the sense that I needed to be there, on the farm, but didn’t know why. Once I arrived I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do. “To the cemetery” a familiar voice said. That was the internal voice that I have learned to trust and honor. Not to question or find logic in the message; just listen. So, I went. For a long time, I just sat there. In silence. A visitor.
As I tend to do, while my body may be still my mind is not. “Why here?” “Why now?” “There are many more inspiring and beautiful places to be on this land!” Graveyards. The dead. Then I had the seemingly random memory of being told once that there is a Jewish tradition of friends and loved ones washing the body of their departed. That was followed by a memory of watching a movie of a similar Japanese ritual.
So, then I get the idea that I will spend this day “washing” the bodies of these unknown dead lying before me. I will lovingly and reverently clear away the briars, brambles, brush, saplings and deadfall that keep these people unacknowledged, invisible, forgotten as if they never existed.
In this cemetery, there are marked headstones. Those who were the owners, the slave masters. I have been told that if a slave was favored enough, they would be buried near, even next to their master’s headstone. A simple, unshaped, stone marking their spot. If not favored, they would simply be buried in the general area. No stone or marker. Some 150 years later just a coffin shaped depression in the ground, marks their human existence. All equals now, all resting in the same ground. What appeared at first to be just a few grave sites, by the end of the day numbered 70.
This graveyard reflects the full tortured, twisted, agonizing, painful history of America that we still have not made peace with. As, in my opinion, we are witnessing playing out in our culture today. One of my mentors, Richard Rohr, suggests that those traumas (individual and cultural) not transformed or healed, are transferred to the next generation(s).
I felt a reverence and strange sense of duty as I was quietly going about the work. Though not my blood ancestors, I felt an unspoken kinship. A responsibility.
We once restored a circa 1700’s log home. Looking at the finished product, I felt we had preserved her for another 100 years. I felt as if we had fulfilled some responsibility to keep her alive. I had the same feeling for this cemetery. I felt a responsibility to tend to her until the next descendant would pick up the baton of remembrance and care.
Near the end of the day, as I was finishing up the clearing and cleaning, I suddenly remembered that my grandfather spent nearly every day of the last four decades of his life in a cemetery. Visiting, tending, cleansing, and “washing”, if you will, my grandmother. He started going there the day after she was buried. If I wanted to find him on my infrequent trips back home as an adult, I would stop there first and most often, that is exactly where I would find him.
By his being there, he finally had gotten to honoring his bride’s (my grandmother’s) “honey-do” list. A list that he completed after she died. I would imagine that on that list was “spend some time with me each day”. He did. Even as a little kid of eight, I wondered why he waited until after she had died to honor the list. I vowed to act differently. I hope I have.
After her death, he wore her glasses, he read her Bible, never again sleeping in the bed they shared, or entering the room where they had slept. Where seven children, including my mom, were conceived and born and, in which, she died. He opted for the old recliner in the living room of the old farmhouse that had been their life.
So, on this day, I realized that, at least in my own mind, here I was. At his age. In my own bib overalls and sun hat. Doing what he did. Caring for the dead. For one day at least, I was carrying on the tradition of loving and showing reverence for the dead that my grandfather had modeled, because as time went on, he became the caretaker of the entire cemetery.
I wondered, what he would think, if he knew. Would he be proud? Scoff? Would he even care? It really did not matter right then. What mattered, was that doing this mattered to me.
It is amazing to me how my early childhood experiences are replicated in my adult life. This is one example. I wonder if you have experienced the same. Finding yourself doing or saying what your ancestors did, without realizing it until you remembered? Tell me about that?