The town of Hancock, NH, where I live, is 237 years old, and even though the population has dwindled to 1,654 inhabitants, the fact that the town has existed for so many years necessitates three separate cemeteries. The oldest contains tombstones that date from the American Revolution. A walk through this cemetery is history under one’s feet, particularly the large family groupings. Since people did not stray far from their hometowns in those days—simply adding onto their farmsteads to accommodate succeeding generations, in the classic “big house/little house/back house/barn” pattern—cemeteries tend to contain grandparents, parents, and far too many children and infants. Looking at these collections of tombstones, large and small, sunken and tumbling and mossy with years of weathering, one is forced into remembrance, as the tombstone has become the final definition of the person whose final resting place it marks. These people, who were once blessed to be the active subjects in others’ lives, have now been transformed into objects for the living to reflect upon.
On Memorial Day this year, I walked to the town’s newest cemetery, which is not far from my home, to visit my father’s grave, marked with a veteran’s flag and marker. I had not been there since his committal, and part of my reason for being there was to think about a choosing a tombstone for him. As I stood there, I was also thinking about my father’s brother, who is buried next to him. He killed himself 46 years ago, and since he had no burial plot of his own and no clearly appropriate place to be interred, my dad had him buried in the plot that he had purchased for himself and my mother. I was very young at the time and I don’t remember very much about their relationship, but they were brothers only a year apart in age. And no matter how they might have interacted or felt about each other in life, when my uncle died, my father was there to give him a place to rest. This reminds me just a little of the Robert Frost poem “The Death of the Hired Man”: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” And yet Dad didn’t have to take in his brother’s remains after his sudden death; he did it because it was his brother, his family. My father believed in family and in taking care of them, no matter what, and Alan deserved a place of remembrance.
Tombstones, like historic markers and monuments, are ways of forcing us to remember, sometimes when we would prefer to forget. There are thoughts or actions in this world that we perceive as so critical to our existence that we etch them in stone. When it comes to the sphere of our family, isn’t this actually what a tombstone is? We seek to never forget the people who have had an important place in our lives, using the permanence of a stone, since their physical bodies will pass away quickly. To this end, we are graced to eternally interpret the meaning of that object, that tombstone, as it relates to our current lives. It may be a different interpretation with each visit, as we ourselves may be a different person each time, depending on where we stand in our lives at that moment, as we age and change.
And so I will be blessed to find the tombstone for my father and my uncle, as a constant remembrance to find love even in those who have lost their way. I am grateful for my father allowing me the opportunity to always remember Uncle Alan, just as I will always remember Dad, as well as those other family members who will ultimately rest beneath that same stone.