A Day with the Dead

I’m probably the only person around who knows exactly when the the weather is going to “turn cold” in the fall: November 2.

That day, the Feast of All Souls, is the day I do my “cemetery walk.” I march up and down the roads among the tombstones, or wander in and out among the rows, praying for all those who have died and lie buried there, and for all those who have ever died anywhere, including my own loved ones. Inevitably, the weather will be cold and windy, if not also rainy or snowy. I leave home bundled for the Arctic and am never sorry I did. An hour in a windy cemetery on November 2 is always guaranteed to be a test of endurance.

All Soul’s Day is a Catholic feast and is connected with our doctrine of Purgatory, as you might suspect. It’s about our belief that the prayers of we who remain behind, and of those who are already in heaven, can help the ones who haven’t quite finished the journey. To me, it’s comforting to know that even though they’re dead, there’s still this one thing we can do for them.

This blog, however, is not about the doctrine, or about persuading you to accept it. It’s about my personal visit, my communion, with people I’ve probably never met; about the stories I read on the stones, and the connectedness I feel with the generations who have gone before.

I like that connectedness. I think it keeps them remembered. It was standing in an old pioneer cemetery that I first realized how quickly there’s no one left who knew us. All the earnestness of our struggles and successes, our trials and tribulations, our joys and accomplishments, are gone like chaff in the wind after very few decades.

Most of us won’t appear in history books, nor will we have our journals, letters or memoirs published to remind people about us. Even then, we would only be a name, not flesh and blood, not really known to those who read those names.

I don’t personally know the people behind those names on the tombstones, either, but they always give me pause. I look at the name of the “wife and mother” who died at age 23, and wonder about the husband left behind. Did she die in childbirth? Did she leave other children motherless with her passing? Did her husband marry again, and is he perhaps buried elsewhere?

I see the name of one of our area’s pioneers, a surname that still survives among descendants. I wonder, as he carved out a life for himself back in the 1800s, whether he suspected that his name would still grace the signs at a real estate office, a Yamaha dealer, a dentist’s office.

I see the birth and death dates of a husband carved next to the birth date of his wife. No death date for her, though, and if she were alive, she’d be well over 100. Why does she lie elsewhere? Did she remarry and now share a stone with a new husband? Did she move away, perhaps to be nearer to her children?

I see the name of a long-ago13-year-old boy, sharing a stone with his parents who died much later. I can imagine their grief as well as the gap his death left in their family. I see three siblings of different ages who died on the same date. Fire? Disease? A sad blow to their family no matter what the cause.

But it isn’t all pathos. Some of the stones are sweetly amusing, and indications of an attitude that typifies Catholics. We’re not into seances and channeling, but we do believe that there remains a connection between the living and the dead, through prayer.  We pray for those who have died, they pray for and are aware of us. Thus, on a tombstone, a tiny statue of a basset hound; on another, a pumpkin with a little rhyme for a grandmother; and on yet another, a little pile of pretty stones. The meaning behind all these things is clear only to those who left them, and to those who lie there.

I’ve seen photographs, pretty figurines and, a couple times, a bottle of beer. We don’t believe the dead emerge and use any of those things, of course; but we do believe they’re aware of them, and that they indicate the bond of love that death can’t sever.

Today, the wind blew, dark clouds moved overhead, and the temps hovered in the mid-30s. I pulled up my hood, zipped my coat up over my chin, and kept in my pocket the hand that fingered my rosary. Another cold November 2, right on schedule.


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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4 Responses to A Day with the Dead

  1. Kathryn Johnson says:

    What a nice tradition. I also enjoy old cemetarys but prefer warm weather.

  2. sarahlmandl says:

    This remindes me of Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Since high school, I have thought that it might be interesting to write short stories fleshing out Masters’s characters. I, much like you, find a kind of solace in walking through a cemetery; although, I like to do it in the summer. 😉 Once again, a beautiful post.

  3. Monica Sawyn says:

    Thanks, Sarah! Your idea of the short stories fleshing out Masters’ stories sounds interesting and fun. I hope you try it!

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