Memorial Day, 2013

I am actually writing this post in the Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville, Colorado, which is the home of many firsts for me.  For starters, it’s the first time I’ve typed on a computer in a cemetery.  It’s also the first time I’ve come across exposed bones, but that’s a whole different post.

It’s Memorial Day weekend and I’ve tried several times in the past to write an essay about veterans but I always end up being too emotional.  Like, actually crying too much to finish.  I am thinking if I keep this short I may get through it.

I served a short term in the military but it was considered a peace time service.  I didn’t serve in any wars or conflicts.  It still changed my life.  As you can imagine there were people from all walks of life, many good men and women, some screw-ups, idiots, assholes, and few who couldn’t tie their boots without instructions but there was thing I knew – each and every one of them was dedicated and had my back, and I had theirs.  Our lives were never at risk so I can only imagine what more hardened veterans have gone through.

A line kept going through my head today and I don’t know where I’ve heard and I have no internet up here to look it up but it goes like this:

“And once a year they shed a tear and plant a little flag…”

So, I do see many people here, planting flags at veteran’s graves.  They are smiling and talking and making plans.  Planting a flag was just on their list of things to do today.  I know they care, and in another time or if they were alone they may be choking back tears as I am right now.

I know Memorial Day is the day set aside for this, but we should also remember that every day we live, every Thursday, every May 12th, every October, and every day we nap and mow the lawn and go shopping or work hard for our wages, all these days are because of veterans, and veterans have sacrificed all these days so that the average schmuck like me can have them.

Today I saw civil war grave markers made out of wood, and someone took the time to repaint the name, rank, and date on many of them.  Some were too faded to make out any more.  Nearby granite markers bear the names of World War I and II vets, and one from the Spanish-American war.  They spanned a century.  Brothers in arms, laid to rest, at last.

I may not know their names, but I know the life they gave me.

And once again, I am crying too hard to finish.  Below are pictures without captions, because I can say no more.

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My granpa…

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Growth

I really don’t have a lot to say this week.  Just that life is about growth.  A lot has happened in the last few weeks and while my first instinct is duck for cover until it all passes I can’t always do that.  Sometimes I have to roll my sleeves up and get something done and most of these times I learn something about myself – I grow a little bit.

The thing about death is that a life ends but all around other lives go on.  Sometimes a death changes very little, maybe you barely knew the person or relative so it doesn’t touch you that much.  Sometimes it’s the most important person in your life and everything, everything changes.  I’ve been through both, and after the emotion and break downs it hits you.  Life goes on.  The world keeps turning.  The sun will rise.

I started thinking about all of this while looking at the following pictures.  In the days and weeks following a death someone thought it would be a good idea to plant something next to their loved one’s grave.  Something that can grow.  People sometimes don’t know just how much they can grow, they surprise themselves.  And we don’t grow out of the memories of those that passed, they are part of us, they are the reason we are who we are.

These are pics of things that grew.  Grew more than anyone thought they would.  I’m sure it’s all our loved ones ever wanted for us.

 

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This is one of my favorite pics, and was part of the Art de Morte collection in Minneapolis.  There’s something about the way the tree is wrapped around the stone, almost protecting it.

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I sometimes wonder what it’s like to have a tree on your chest.

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The Forgotten

Sometimes I picture some frontiersman living a life on the road, never settling down, just trying to live day by day.  He has a mother and father who live in some small town and when he passes away his body is sent home and he is buried in the family plot.  He never made history, never had any papers, and all that’s left of him is a name and pair of dates on a tombstone somewhere.  Sometimes that is all there is.

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When I walk through a cemetery I say the names I see inside my head and run some mental math so I can get an idea of how old the person was, and I try to picture the time they lived in.  Were they the lone traveler? Did they accomplish anything?  Sometimes I hear their voices saying, “Hey, I was here.”

In my years of visiting cemeteries I have seen things in many states.  When I first visited the Dudly cemetery in Mitchell county there was not a single stone visible, as all were buried with the passage of time.   I started researching cemeteries in the area and found, sadly, that this happens far too frequently.

Some places were completely forgotten.  The stones had fallen to ruin, never to be read again.  We mark the places where our loved ones were laid to rest, but sometimes these places are lost.

These stones once stood in a field, at some point a farmer moved them into the woods so he would have more acreage to plow on.  From Mitchell County, Iowa.  We may never know where the real graves are.

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Also in Iowa, an abandoned cemetery near Buffalo Center.

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Near St Ansgar there is a haunting little place where some restoration was attempted.

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Just a year old…

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Sometimes the thing that haunts me are stones that have faded.  No longer do they have family to take care of them, and these people are completely forgotten.

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The earth tries to take back the stones that were pulled from it.

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Sometimes it’s the elements that take the toll.

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I think saddest of all are those that never had a name…

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Grandpa the Mason

My grandfather passed away when I was very young and his is one of the first funerals I can recall going to.  I remember going to the funeral home and wasn’t sure what to expect, except that there would be a lot of emotion there.  My grandmother was calmly talking and being practical, at 94 I am sure she has seen her share of funerals.  Grandpa’s casket was very ornate and there was a good reason for that.  Well, a couple good reasons.

Years before, my grandfather had buried a friend and I happen to be at his house when he returned from the funeral, which took place in a very rural area in Michigan.  I never saw my grandpa crying before, but the source of his tears were not coming from where you’d expect.  According to my grandfather his friend was buried in a plain pine box, just four sides and a top and bottom looking very much like something you’d ship a lamp in.  My grandfather couldn’t speak, I remember my grandmother cradling him and the only words he said at the time were, “don’t bury me like that.”  He could barely get them out.

This is one of the things I think about when I walk among the stones.  Who had big funerals, and who had no one.

Grandpa’s was big.  Not as big as my dad’s (more on that in a future article) but he was well-known and well-loved.  His life was long and interesting and in later years was fire chief and then mayor of his sleepy little town.  I am sure more people would have come if he simply hadn’t outlived them all.

One thing really surprised me.  He was adorned with jewelry.  I mean, he looked like king.  There was a ring on each finger, necklaces were placed around his neck, big ones.  There were ribbons and medallions, for one thing I had always know about my grandfather but never really thought about was that he was a Mason.  A high-ranking one.

We drove to the cemetery and his body was placed in a temple and we were all asked to leave.  I lingered behind and looked through the stain glass windows at what I could only presume was a Mason ceremony.  Men wearing jewelry opened the casket and they moved around and said things I couldn’t hear.  His casket was closed and they filed out.

Not being a Mason I never found out what their burial traditions are although I’m sure in this day and age it can be Googled but I want to maintain that sense of wonder I felt watching what seemed to be a mystic ceremony.  Now days, while walking in the cities of the dead I can see many Masonic symbols and these men and women I at least know were taken care of when they passed away.

My grandfather, who in spite of his wealth of friends and family died a humble man, and we gave him a humble marker.  Symbols of the Mason and the Order of the Eastern Star can be seen between the years of their lives.  (You can click for a larger version.)

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The letter G in the Masonic emblem is a reminder that we are all created by the Great Architect of the Universe.

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Wives of Masons usually belong to the Order of the Eastern Star.  No, FATAL isn’t how they died, it stands for Fairest Among Thousands, Altogether Lovely.

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I found this statue near Des Moines in a cemetery that was full of Masons.  It depicts Masons holding the weight of the world.

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You can see the men holding traditional tools and symbols of the Masons.

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The inscription reads, “Every one of these short lives leave its sure record of some kindly thing done for others.”

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Pillars and unfinished temples also symbolize that a Mason was buried there.  A broken temple is a Mason whose life was cut short.

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High level Masons can become a member of the Knights Templar and/or Shriners, their scimitar, crescent, and star is easy to spot.  The center is the symbol for the Knights Templar which includes the latin phrase “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” which translates to “In This Sign, Conquer.”  Occasionally you will only see the crown and cross for a Knights Templar.

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A two headed eagle is the symbol for a 32nd degree Mason of the Scottish rite.

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Remember, these are but a sample, but one thing I’ve learned, just about everything on a stone is a symbol for something.

Prologue

bwstone04Every city seems to have permanent fixtures that we are so used to we hardly notice them anymore.  The water tower, the city hall, a playground or two, and somewhere off to one side there is a field set aside as a place for us to bury our dead.  Cemeteries exist in our peripheral vision, we never really see them until look directly into them.  For most, they are just a place full of stone markers, dates, names, and a bible verse or two.  Then, on some quiet summer afternoon you may find yourself walking through one and you may look closer at what’s around you and see that there is so much more to these quiet places.

If you look close enough there are countless stories to be told.  Stones contain symbols and representations that mean something to the corpse underneath and the families they left behind.  Names tell the stories of who built the towns around you and who worked the land for generations past.  The pairs of dates reveal a life that was long or cut short or never had a chance.  And taken as a whole you can see the whole community, families, neighbors, friends, and lovers who all lived and died and interacted and built and prepared everything you see around you for without them there would be no community.pic00447

Sometimes when I’m alone, walking through the stones, I can almost hear voices saying hello or asking who is president or what year it is.  It’s a lonely place, a place where we carve our name in stone, and how long we were here, so that people may remember we lived at all.  It’s also a place that once we are there we are left alone, to suffer the very fate our stone was meant to prevent – to be forgotten.

When I started visiting these places I began to wonder what the stones really meant.  What is the broken chain?  The lamb?  The drape?  The log?  Were they just random designs or was there something deeper.  I began to photograph and study and in time began to see that cemeteries are like books.  They can be read, deciphered, and even learned from.  This blog will contain some of what I’ve learned and where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.  In the end I only hope that for a short time I’ve moved these places from just something you drive past to something that really has meaning.  These places of the dead can really seem to come alive, like a city.  A city of stones.cos03