In Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gilead, the 76-year old Reverend John Ames writes as one remembering his life and the life of his father and grandfather. Today, one passage in particular stimulated my own memories. Ames is recalling how, as a young boy in Kansas in the late 1800s, he traveled with his father to find the whereabouts of his father (and Ames' grandfather). It was a difficult trip, with barely enough food to stay alive, taking a solid month round trip. They found the makeshift graveyard where his grandfather was buried, down the lonely remains of a road:
We walked past that graveyard twice. The two or three headstones in it had fallen over and it was all grown up with weeds and grass. The third time, my father noticed a fence post, so we walked over to it, and we could see a handful of graves, a row of maybe seven or eight, and below it a half row, swamped with that dead brown grass. I remember that the incompleteness of it seemed sad to me. In the second row we found a marker someone had made by stripping a patch of bark off a log and then driving nails partway in and bending them flat so they made the letters REV AMES. The R looked like the A and the S was a backwards Z, but there was no mistaking it.
Ames and his father went on to spend a couple days there, mending a fence, setting the gravestones upright, his father saying "We might as well look after these other folks while we are here." They cut the brush back and generally tidied up the whole place, even planting wildflowers. And then this:
My father said to be careful where I stepped. There were small graves here and there that I hadn't noticed at first, or I hadn't quite realized what they were. I certainly didn't want to walk on them, but until he cut the weeds down I couldn't tell where they were, and then I knew I had stepped on some of them, and I felt sick. Only in childhood have I felt guilt like that, and pity. I still dream about it. My father says that when someone dies the body is just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore. But there we were, half killing ourselves to find a grave, and as cautious as we could be about where we put our feet.
Just reading this fictional account, I remembered my younger sister and I walking once with my grandmother to an old graveyard near her home. I was probably six or seven at most. I had never been to such a place, like a graveyard in a forest all grown up over and around the graves. Forgotten by most. But not by my grandmother. We pulled vines off the headstones, tried to set them right, made nice beds of pine straw over the graves (to the extent we could find them). And we were quiet. It was a sober task, though I could not have told you then why we were so quiet.
This is, in a sense, a curious thing to do. The dead are dead. As Christians we believe, like Reverend Ames father said, that the body is "just a suit of old clothes the spirit doesn't want anymore." And yet we believe in a bodily resurrection, an ongoing physical manifestation of who I am, and perhaps honoring the body in burial and in death and hallowing the place where the body rests is symbolic -- it points to our hope of bodily resurrection beyond the grave. There's no sense in graveyards if there's no resurrection.
A friend said to me recently, "Steve, when you die and they have your funeral, I want to see your body up there in front of the church. Will you do that?"
Yes. And I'll leave instructions: "This is my body. I've gone on. You will too. Handle with care. It's not much of a body, but it's important. It points beyond."
And please don't walk on my grave.