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Cemetery Chronicles

By Margaret Cullison

The cemetery lies on a hill at the outskirts of my home town, its oldest gravestones dating back to 1850s and 60s. The surnames of the people who first settled in the area reflect their European origins, newcomers to the New World seeking land to call their own. Coming primarily from Denmark and Germany, they chose the terrain for its rolling hills so like their homelands and found fertile soil composted from the untilled Midwestern prairie. English, Scottish, Irish and Italians came too, embracing the quieter life of this new farming community. A man from Greece got off the train, liked what he saw and decided to stay.

My childhood memories of that cemetery center on Memorial Day, which we celebrated in the traditional American way. A parade consisting of the high school marching band, civic leaders and community and youth groups departed from the town square and arrived at the cemetery by midmorning. Gravel pathways within the cemetery grounds teemed with people, who came to hear the music and speeches and to honor their departed loved ones. I joined in that parade once or twice as a Girl Scout, but I preferred the more personal experience of going with my parents to place flowers on our family graves.

Pink peonies were the only flowers blooming in our yard in late May, so we gathered those blossoms, heavy with foliage and scent. Only the graves on my fathers side of the family received our attention, because Moms relatives were buried in her hometowns own hilltop cemetery further south. I felt the solemnity of the occasion but held no personal sadness for the people we honored, having never known them. The tranquility of the place, fresh with spring grass and newly-leaved trees, appealed to me even then.

Both my grandfathers had died without my knowing them, and I avoided the grief of losing a loved one until my fourteenth year when my paternal grandmother died. My brothers and I called her Buddy, and she lingered for several months after falling down the front stairway of our house. Asleep in my bedroom at the top of the stairs, I was dreaming of someone doing cart wheels when the noise of her fall woke me. Coming out of my bedroom onto the upper hallway, I saw her white night-gowned form lying helplessly at the foot of the stairs.

With a broken collarbone and little residual strength, Buddy spent her last days in the small bedroom off the upstairs bathroom, where my mother could more readily attend her needs. I would come home from school each afternoon and sit with her for awhile. Her mind had faded into dementia even before the fall, and she seemed unaware of my presence. Because of her occasional moans, I would read passages from the Bible to comfort her.

My mother didnt like to talk about sickness or death because of her Christian Science faith, and we tried to respect her wishes. Consequently, the morning of Buddys death played out in quiet acceptance. Mom simply said to Dad, I think Buddy stopped breathing during the night. He made the necessary phone calls, and I went off to school.

In the previous generation, the bodies of family members remained in the house, lying in state in the front parlor, where visitations took place until burial time. But that tradition had changed by 1951, and Buddy was already at the funeral home by the time I arrived home from school that afternoon.

On the day of her funeral, my mother suggested that I go to school as usual instead of attending the service. She explained that this would help me to retain my memories of Buddy as a living person. I liked that idea and have never thought it a bad way to handle a young girls first experience with death.

Around that time, my oldest brother, Ben developed an interest in Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology. He found meaning in the poems, because they told of people who had lived in a small Midwestern town similar to our own, although of an earlier generation. Occasionally hed read the poems aloud to anyone whod listen, but Mom disliked hearing about the sad, failed lives depicted in the book. An inveterate teaser, I remember that once Ben continued reading until she lost patience and ordered him to stop. That was probably the end of his reading those poems out loud.

The autumn after Buddy died, Mom, Ben and I drove east to visit relatives. I took homework assignments along to make up for the two weeks Id miss of my second year in high school. Ben, about to start his sophomore year at Grinnell College, planned to visit a college friend in Connecticut and give him a ride back to Iowa with us.

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