When I was a little girl, a few days before Memorial Day, my mom would gather up her gardening tools and a whole slew of plants, and we’d go to the cemetery where my grandparents were buried. Back then she was allowed to plant flowers on their graves - actually right on the graves, not just around the headstone. Grandma and Grandpa loved gardens so much, so over the course of a morning, we’d turn their plots into mini flower gardens. Such a thing is no longer allowed at that cemetery - and I can’t imagine it being allowed at any cemetery - but back then, they didn’t care; it just meant that they’d mow around that particular area rather than right over it.
My grandparents died within a few months of each other when I was 4 years old, so this ritual is one of my earliest memories. I remember being too young to be of much help for a few years, and I’d get distracted anyway, by the fascinating things all around us. The cemetery was surrounded on three sides by a forest, deep and dark and too thick to enter. It was scarier than the cemetery.
So instead I’d wander around the graves, reading, as I grew older, the markers with their old-fashioned names, their dates from long before I was born. The cemetery tells the story of island pioneers and worldwide conflicts as only an old graveyard can. I knew some of the names - church deacons of days gone by, teachers and neighbors and even children.
One crumbling gravestone bore the simple epitaph, “Baby Bot,” the words were spelled out in white stones from the beach, sunk into cement. There was no money for engraving in the Bot family. I always greeted Baby Bot when I visited the cemetery, drawn by the untold story, the tiny grave, which said so much.
And there were the gravestones of veterans, decorated with flags and lauded with “Taps” at the Memorial Day service. We often attended the service, though I don’t remember much except “Taps.” It always made me cry. Still does. Even though I didn’t understand, back then, what being a veteran really meant.
There was another cemetery, in another country, which somehow brought it home to me. I spent the summer of 1989 in Thailand, on a mission trip. One of the weekend events we did was to take a train to a beautiful outdoor recreation area. On the way we stopped to visit the Bridge over the River Kwai - no, not the actual WWII bridge (it’s long gone), but the location of it. Off to the side, tucked away so as to be almost unnoticed, there is a military cemetery. You know the kind, with row upon row of white crosses. These were some of the 12,000 Allied women and men who died while being forced to build the Burma Railway.
As I stood there, Rupert Brookes’ poem “Nineteen-Fourteen: The Soldier” came to mind. There is a corner in a foreign field which is forever England. In other words, they may be buried in a foreign land, but that land, by their presence, becomes the soil of their homeland. I like that idea.
There they lie, in their neat rows of markers, beneath green grass, forever within sight of the river, forever on English soil, or American, or Canadian or Australian, or whatever Allied nation they happen to come from.
And that makes me think of another war poem: “Grass”, by Carl Sandburg. Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. / Shovel them under and let me work / I am the grass; I cover all. / And pile them high at Gettysburg / And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. / Shovel them under and let me work. / Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: / What place is this? / Where are we now? / I am the grass. / Let me work.
Makes you think, that. Time passes. Heals.
But of course the trick is, we mustn’t forget.
And that’s why my family goes to the Memorial Day service every year. That’s why we bring our children. So that those who gave their all for our nation are not forgotten.
“Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Deuteronomy 4:9 NIV
Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.