Many Memorial Days in my early childhood were spent at the Portola, California cemetery decorating my paternal grandparents’ graves. For my Dad, I think it was a spiritual experience. I can’t say that I’ve personally ever had a spiritual experience in a cemetery. My mother’s parents were buried in Carson City, Nevada, and I don’t remember ever going back to visit the graves after the funeral. As an adult, I’ve made one or two trips there when we were in the area. At some point in my childhood, the Memorial Day visits in Portola ceased.
My personal feeling is that my loved ones are not in the cemetery, but in heaven. I can remember them and honor them in many ways, at any time, in any place. However, I respect that we all deal with grief differently. I respect that others do get some sort of comfort by visiting the grave sites.
My stepson was killed in a tragic Caltrans accident in 2007. My husband, Danny, visits his grave often, and I go with him. We go get flowers, and I help him decorate the grave. Then I walk back to the car and let him have a few minutes alone. Since many of our friends have preceded us in death, we occasionally visit those graves, as well. I’m quite happy to help my husband do this, but the whole ritual still remains a mystery to me.
I took a quick survey of my friends on Facebook to see how people felt about visiting cemeteries. I’m actually surprised at the number of responses, both publicly and privately. The answers were interesting and varied. Some people do feel comfort at visiting grave sites, and some do not. Some would rather remember loved ones in other ways, and some feel a closeness in the cemetery. One person said he had some good experiences in cemeteries. The word “respect” popped up in one response. That was an interesting thing for me to think about, that we go to cemeteries out of respect. That made sense to me.
It was mentioned that the need to go to the cemetery is sometimes not as strong as time moves forward and the grieving process becomes more complete. That also makes sense to me. One person mentioned that it makes her sad to see old graves that are neglected. I have shared that feeling, which is totally contradictory to my lack of need to visit the cemetery.
Today’s experience taught me a few things. Today is the third anniversary of the death of a good friend, Dave Purcell. I wrote about my buddy, Dave, on my old blog (under my real name) here. I think about Dave often. Dave is buried in the old Pioneer Cemetery in Jackson, California. We live in Sacramento, which is about 50 miles from Jackson. We went to Dave’s funeral, but were not able to go to the cemetery that day, so we didn’t know where he was buried. In the last three years, we have been to the cemetery four different times to find his grave. My husband is nothing, if not persistent, and he was determined to find Dave’s grave.
The first time we searched, we weren’t even sure which cemetery he was buried in, so we spent the better part of the day searching several cemeteries and came up empty handed.
Before the second trip, Danny called one of Dave’s sons to get some direction. We found out it was the Pioneer cemetery, there was a grave stone, and he is buried very near a big pole. There is a little gazebo area with a large flag pole. We searched that area until we were both blue in the face and again came up with nothing.
The third trip to Jackson, we stopped at City Hall and spoke with the woman in the records department. She came up with no record of Dave being buried in the old cemetery, but put us in contact with the man who takes care of the cemetery (part-time). He was nice enough to drop what he was doing, take an early lunch from his regular job, and meet us in the cemetery because he thought he knew the location of the grave. Unfortunately, after yet another long hunt, we couldn’t find the grave.
Yesterday, Danny mentioned that we should take another trip to Jackson. I’m usually very patient with this ritual, but I almost said no this time. Danny is about to have his 71st birthday in a couple of weeks. The old cemetery is not the safest place to be walking around, and I don’t want him falling. I’m also concerned about my own physical well being, as the metal plate and seven screws in my right ankle are not very conducive to walking up and down the rocky hillsides of the old cemetery. This is gold country, people, there’s not a blade of grass in sight. We’re talking rocky hillsides. This is also August, and it’s hot. I decided to humor him, however, and we made the trip to Jackson.
It was past lunchtime when we arrived in Jackson, and Danny is a diabetic. He needed to eat before walking around in the heat, but there was no use arguing with him. We headed straight for the cemetery. We did not find the grave, so we headed for City Hall (yes, again). By this time, I needed to eat too, and my legs were pretty wobbly. I don’t know how Danny was still standing. Sherry Lane, a super nice clerk, found an old card file (no microfilm here, folks) which had the name of a female with the last name Purcell. Judging from the date, she and Danny decided this must be Dave’s mother. Since Dave was cremated, Sherry assumed that Dave’s ashes were buried with his mother. She copied a map for us. We promised her that if we found it, we would return and tell her so she could record it. Apparently, the mortuary sometimes forgets to do this.
We had a quick bite at Mel’s Diner, and then headed back to the cemetery. Looking at the map, we found a family name I recognized. I told Danny that I had seen that grave — and it appeared from the map to be right across from Dave’s mother’s plot. We walked that direction, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had been ALL OVER that section of the cemetery several times! I recognized all the graves around Dave’s, but I had never seen his stone. Sure enough, there is a gravestone marking his spot with his mother.
I’m so glad we went today! I believe we were meant to find Dave’s grave so that we could have it recorded by the City of Jackson (which we did as soon as we left the cemetery). Now that we know where it is, we will be able to return as often as Danny wants, because it is right off the main road in a very flat spot, and there is no rocky walking involved.
So, after today, I think I’ll see going to the cemetery in a little different light. While I still don’t quite understand why people want to go through the ritual, I’ve now had an experience of my own. I know that we were supposed to look for that grave, find it, and have it recorded. A hundred years from now or more when the stone is broken and unrecognizable, the City of Jackson will have a record that he is there for Dave’s descendants. When his descendants are doing their genealogy, they will find him. Family is important. Danny truly received inspiration from powers beyond this earth to make it easier for Dave’s descendants to find him. I’m grateful to have been a small part of that, even if a somewhat reluctant participant.