In the past couple of weeks, I had the profound experience of visiting the graves of my ancestors and family. The time I spent with them was both personal and reflective, and I began to long for the times of a century ago and beyond, when we treated death as it ought to be. We used to not forget the dead but visited them on anniversaries and birthdays. Traditionally, we did not burn bodies to keep on the mantle or scatter to the wind; we buried them to rest. We remembered that even after death, our souls would once again dwell in our bodies on the last day. It is quite reasonable to fear dying, but as a culture, we now fear death and all reminders of it. Perhaps it is a lack of faith.
In Madison, I first found my great grandparents, Frank and Gertie Monnens. It was beginning to sprinkle, and I sank to my knee in the wet grass, and the first thing I did was thank them. Frank and Gertie went through a lot of hell to raise their children–my grandfather included. They had 11 children and buried two; survived the Depression with little land and less money; and tried and failed with several farms. They upheld moral standards and passed them on, so impressing their children that the stubborn fight for the truth is still alive in all their descendants.
No matter one’s view on what happens after death, it is immensely comforting to be near a relative who has gone before. They are not superhumans of family legends, put people. They suffered and wept and rejoiced. They existed under dubious world leaders and got by with far less than we have. Yet, they understand perfectly the needs of the soul, and they hold the door open for us when it comes time to pass from this world to the next.
The Christian tradition of asking for the prayers of the dead, and praying for them in turn, seemed like the most natural thing to do in the world. “They aren’t there anymore,” is so often muttered of the dead. Perhaps not, but it would be quite wrong to think that they are unaware of our visit. To sit next to their physical remains and recall the mystery of their humanity—the divine entanglement of body and soul—is to recognize the purpose of our existence. Our Lord, too, died and was buried.
Stub lay next to his parents in a child-sized grave. I thanked him for who he was, and for all the memories and treasures he left behind for me to uncover while I write a book about his life. It’s like I’m getting to know him decades after he lived. The magnitude of his life, neatly wrapped up and buried there was enough to move me to tears, though I have no memories of him at all, save for the ones I am making now.
My great, great grandparents, Sam and Gertrude Stapert (Americanized from their distinctive Dutch names Sijbe and Gleska) are buried prominently in the Hillview Cemetery in Isabel. What a profound experience it is to dwell in the resting place of one’s far-reaching ancestor, to lovingly wipe the headstones clean and ponder the divine plan for the family they started. It has been 152 years, and those decades are brought to a new light when I consider that I could have her chin or his eyes and their love for the wild country. A century and a half since their birth, and the birth of six heirs thereafter, and here I am.
It would be inaccurate to describe myself as a grain of sand, because I am not lost to their line, nor God’s. Rather, I am a part of a tapestry by the Master’s design––small, but necessary in my own place, carrying both the significance of the past and the power to shape the future with the continuance of my own branch. If one poor thread had ceased to exist on the pattern, then so would I cease to exist.
To seek one’s past, to honor one’s father and mother (and indeed beyond) is a humbling and necessary experience. In a world obsessed with modernism, progressivism, preventing and killing children, it is necessary to look back. My ancestors suffered much for me to live, and I suspect my story is no different than any other. Each life is no accident; every death is significant. We must understand death in order to fully understand how to live. In remembering its reality, one learns that they are not the center of the universe, but a moving part; they are not the whole, but they are not forgotten; they may live in this valley of tears, but they are not alone, for many paved the path before them.
Several rows away lie Sam and Gertrude’s grandchildren: Raymond and Mary Monnens. My great aunt and uncle died as innocents at 16 years old and two years old. Their souls, pure and unworldly, are undoubtedly at peaceful rest with our Lord. Their life on earth was not promised to be without affliction, as none of ours are. In their goodness, I know that they are all too happy to pray for a wretched soul like mine, so I ask them to, while cleaning off their untouched and smallish headstones, within handholding distance from one another.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
–From the poem ‘Death is Nothing At All’ by Henry Scott Holland