in Sunnyside Cemetery ~ Caney, Kansas
On this day every year
our dead afflict us with
a kind of solemn astonishment
at how close to us they remain.
The dates on their headstones
reveal that even in their graves
they grow older year by year
just as we do. They are all still with us.
We are all going in the same direction.
#2: In this once country graveyard
In this once country graveyard
now caught in the tentacles
of a noisily expanding city,
we can feel more intimately than ever
the heavy demands made upon us
by the dead. Here they stand
idling, day and night in the din
of traffic, as mute as time
itself, as still as stone.
They require nothing less
of us than our lives.
#3: How Time Is Kept
In the flurry of our beating hearts
there is never time enough for what we dream of.
Our intimate dead, however, lie calm of face
as if to say, no need for hurry.
They idle in such a wealth of stillness
it can never be wholly spent.
Yet they are close, deep in our one affair.
Don't disturb us, they say, we are busy
at the leisure of not breathing. It takes all our time,
it takes more time than being alive.
the Collected Poems
of Ernest Sandeen (1908 - 1997)
Notre Dame Professor and Poet
In Barbara Kingsolver's sad but magical novel Animal Dreams, the narrator, Codi Noline, joins the people of Grace, Arizona, for "the town's biggest holiday, the Day of All Souls." They walk together to the cemetery to weed and tend the family graves, decorate with marigolds, and enjoy the traditional skull-shaped candies with the children:
"It was the bittersweet Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead, democratic follow-up to the Catholic celebration of All Hallows. Some people had business with the saints on November 1, and so went to mass, but on November 2, everybody had business at the graveyard." (158 - 59)
Whenever November 2nd and May 30th roll around, I always wish I lived nearer to the cemeteries where most of my loved ones and ancestors are buried so that I too could pay a visit and decorate the graves in the time - honored fashion. When I was growing up, months and months might pass between visits to our grandparents, but we never missed Thanksgiving or Memorial Day weekend.
No matter what the weather, on Memorial Day we spent a good part of the day at the cemetery, attending various ceremonies and speeches in honor of the Veterans and the War Dead; placing wreathes and potted plants; sometimes even planting flowers that would bloom throughout the summer. Nobody really says "Decoration Day" anymore, but that's what I remember calling it when I was small -- because we decorated! If I was lucky enough to spend a week or two of summer vacation with my grandparents, we spent the evenings one of two ways -- sitting on the porch or taking a walk to Sunnyside Cemetery. Those were happy times for me, tagging along, picking stray flowers, and listening to the old stories about those at rest there.
At Thanksgiving, when the cemetery was bare and empty -- no parades, podiums or bands; very few visitors, very few flowers -- even then we didn't miss the opportunity to wander from grave to grave, paying our respects. I guess that was our Midwestern way of observing All Souls -- just three or four weeks late.
These days, I live only a few blocks from the nearest local cemetery and can spend a reflective hour there anytime, thinking of the old days, reading the names of strangers, but it's not quite the same. As Codi says:
"More than anything else I wished I belonged to one of these living, celebrated families, lush as plants, with bones in the ground for roots. I wanted pollen on my cheeks and one of those calcium ancestors to decorate as my own" (165).
Sunnyside Cemetery on Thanksgiving Day 2007
"Let no wars impede our thanking
God above for this our bread
That our song may end the battles,
Let us feed on that instead."
by Beverly Coyle
from the story "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing"
in The Kneeling Bus, 95
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