End of All Hope

Eddie lived on the family farm,, across the road from the family pier, from  where he had piloted the family fishing boat for many years. Eddie was a bachelor, the last male in his family. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer. It had started as pain, was thought to be cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis, but the battery of tests showed that it was full-blown metastasized cancer.

Meena had called me. I didn’t know Eddie. I knew the farm, with its covey of coops, ricks, and sties . It was a massive, gloomy Victorian monstrosity, gone to seed and windblown. The attached barn, with its labyrinth of sheds, garages and bays was an unpainted hazard waiting for a loose spark and a gale.

Meena had owned a fish shop at the pier for a couple of decades. Eddie sold fish to her. They got to be friends. Meena was our youth minister, my assistant at confirmation classes, a creative genius at crafts, and one of my best friends on the parish. She befriended everyone. Even shy, stammering Eddie.

I went to see Eddie in the hospital. He was in pain, yellow with jaundice, and he slowly told me his medical history. Never sick a day in his life. Then this wicked pain. Then he was vomiting, with bile in it, and he took a stitch that doubled him up. His appetite failed. He couldn’t work anymore.

How could it be cirrhosis? he muttered, pronouncing it shirr-hosis. He never drank, never took a drop. Uncle Fidd, who had raised him, was a wicked drinker. Eddie had promised his Aunt Meg he would never drink. He never had.

Cirrhosis can be hereditary, but cancer was so prevalent in the downshore stretch of the Bay that I spent a lot of time visiting in the hospital and conducting funerals. It was no wonder that shore dwellers contracted cancer and auto-immune diseases. A major smelter sat upshore at Dalhousie, discharging heavy metals and toxins into the water and air. My parishioners had spent their whole lives eating fish and lobster from the Bay, and breathing the downwind fumes. Many of them had worked in a paper and pulp factory, exposed to dioxins.

Eddie was sent home. A nurse would stop in once a day to check on his meds and give him an IV of fluids. I started visiting at least once a week. The house was unchanged since Uncle Fidd and Aunt Meg had died. The kitchen had a large black wood-burning stove, a narrow pantry with both a hand-pump and a tap, a refrigerator purchased about 1954. The big round table in the middle of the kitchen was covered with clashing plastic tablecloths. The necessities of a bachelor’s meals crowded the center of the table: Ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, HP sauce, Worcestershire sauce, strawberry jam, butter. Three cats, of varying degrees of fitness and age, slept in armchairs and rockers by the bay window. An old yellow dog peered in through the screen door from the wood shed.

“Who took care of the animals when you were in hospital?” I asked. Eddie seemed to be the only tenant of the greying old house.

“Meena and her man.” Her man was Young Stan, Meena’s husband. There was an Old Stan, no kin, in the community. Overlapping names and identifying adjectives were as common as bad teeth.

I set the wooden box I carried on the table. “Would you like communion today?”

“I’ve never had communion.”

“What do you mean?”

“I ain’t never had communion.”

I rested my hands on the table top and looked across at him. “Are you baptized?”

“Yah, but never had the communion, the old father wouldn’t give it to me.”

“Why ever not?”

“I was cutting up in them religion classes to be confirmed, and he sent me out and told me not to come back.”

“so you weren’t confirmed?”

“Naw, so I couldn’t have the communion. I just sat at the back and never went forward. Then I started fishing the next year, so’s I stopped going to church.”

Most of the men my age and older had dropped out of school before grade eight. Many were completely illiterate. Most were functionally illiterate. Eddie had been taught to read by Aunt Meg, although he had left school at twelve to work on the farm, and then on the fishing boat.

Bay of Chaleur Ghost Ship

“You can have communion today.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes, I’m the priest here and I can say who gets communion.”

“I don’t have to be confirmed?”

“No, we don’t worry about that anymore.” And, I thought to myself, God forbid I should deny the sacraments to a dying man because of some impatient words Father Nonesuch said thirty years ago.

Eddie was re-admitted to the hospital, to the hospice unit. I met his sister there. I didn’t know he had a sister. Eddie insisted he was in hospice only because there weren’t any beds in oncology.

Sister – Sissy – and I had coffee in the hospital caff. She filled in the details. “Eddie didn’t ever marry. I did, got divorced. We only got each other. Mama was a single mother. I guess she and our dad never married. We thought he was dead, but it was just that he run off with someone and went to Manitoba. So we all moved in with Uncle Fidd and Aunt Meg. Aunt Meg would be my daddy’s sister. So they wasn’t real relatives. Mama did die young, too, I think her heart broke. Eddie and me stayed on at the farm. I went out to clean and wash, mind children. Eddie worked the farm and then the boat. Uncle Fidd was wicked hard on him, wicked hard. That boy couldn’t sit to his supper some nights for the whippings he took.”

I inwardly flinched. I tried to imagine the stammering, shy, animal-loving Eddie deserving a whipping. I could imagine an Uncle Fidd, small but farmer-strong, lashing an awkward boy with a birch switch, out in the woodshed.

“He’s dying, ain’t he?”

“Yes. ”

“He don’t want to believe it. But he knows. He called me last week, wanted me to get him a bottle of some strong liquor, thought he could drink himself to death. I didn’t, though.”

“He can’t drink himself to death. He’s never been a drinker, he’d just throw it up.”

I was concerned enough to leave a note for his doctor, though Eddie didn’t have long to wait. He died on Sunday morning, while I was in church, celebrating the eucharist.

Sissy had everything planned. She paid for the funeral. I went in to help arrange the wake, the service at the funeral chapel, and the burial.

The next morning I got a call from the funeral director.

“Mac won’t open that grave.”

“What is it now?”

“The old burial map shows that that grave has been used, and he’s sounded all over that plot that Fidd bought back in 1940, and it is full.”

“Well, who is buried next to Eddie’s mother?”

“It looks like an infant burial, back in the fifties. Yeah, we thought they’d be plenty of space, but we sounded everywehere and can’t find a spot. Mac is pretty upset.”

“Why this time?”

“He fell through into a grave.”

J. Knight, 1877

I met Mac at the cemetery. There was collapsed turf over the grave in question. “I went straight through. I went over to Carl’s, got the old map, and sure enough, some babies were buried here.”

I got out my mobile and called Sissy at home. “We have a problem. Mac says there are babies buried next to your mother.”

“Oh yeah, so that’s where they were buried. I remember now, they was premature, stillborn, before Eddie. They was just tiny, weren’t even buried in proper coffins, just little pine boxes. You tell Mac I want Eddie next to Mama.”

I told Mac. He grumbled, “What if I bring up bones or something?”

“Then you call me right away, and I’ll come out and we’ll rebury them. I doubt you’ll find anything after forty years gone. Babies that young, and stillborn – they are mostly cartilage and there was no embalming. They are all dust now.”

The real mystery was who else was buried in the plot. There was just the one stone, with the few family names on it. Fidd and Meg had no children of their own. It was a double plot, room for eight burials. And as far as we knew, there should be only three – now four – burials in it. I went to Hank’s house with Tim Horton’s coffee and doughnuts. He was the oldest member of that parish, andhad  been the cemetery warden back in the war years. He had known old Fidd.

“Mmm, hmm, yes, indeed, my girl,” he started. “Oh, yes, old Fidd, he was wicked wayward. He would get those orphans in to help on the farm, besides Eddie and Sissy. He would go up to the rail depot and bring back hobos and bums, or pick up sailors coming off the ships, load them into an old wagon, and promise them room and board and a couple of dollars. He made the poteen himself, kept them drunk most evenings. Yeah, that’s what he did, and some of them died there. I don’t know how many. Fidd would nail together a coffin, take ‘im down the road to Sand Hill, and bury them. Never called the priest or nothing. He was tight as a haddock’s ars…bumhole.”

Sissy and I stood over Eddie’s grave after everyone else had left for the funeral lunch. “I expected we would both be buried with Mama,” she said. “But no, it’s fine that Eddie is. I’ll get myself a little plot down a way. It’s right. It was the only love he ever knew.”

Farm Funeral 1930s, infomercantile


Brothers of the Grave

Two middle-aged bachelor brothers lived next door to Christ Church. They kept a small farm. I think they made a bare living off hay and turnips. They were, as far as I could tell, indistinguishable from each other. They had names but I could never remember which was which. They were fairly short, fairly round, and wore layers of dirty odd clothing summer and winter.

Their most distinguishing feature was that they spoke a private language. On the rare occasions when I would have to encounter one or both of them, I had to have a local interpreter. I suspect the language they spoke was a proprietary blend of Irish Gaelic, English and custom-designed words. It was sibilant and full of soft vowels.  I could not make out one word in their conversations that I could understand. Most people couldn’t. I had two elderly parishioners who had known the brothers all their lives, and were used to them, and could translate. The brothers understood me in English, but never answered except in this dooryard patois.

The brothers knew who I was, certainly. I don’t know if they recognized my truck or me when I drove to the church. If one or both were outside, feeding their barrel-shaped pony, or loading mysterious odds and ends into an old station wagon, they would wave, if the motion they made could be called that. They would suddenly raise one arm, straight up from the shoulder, the hand held above the head in an open palm salute. I would return it with my silly, involuntary, little girl wave, hand palm out at shoulder height, wiggled back and forth rapidly. They would shout a greeting that sounded like  “Hoo!” I would nod and shout “Hi! Hello!” back at them.

They dug the graves in Christ Church Cemetery, the forlorn, windswept burial ground of their ancestors. The cliff face was dissolving into the bay, a foot or two each year. Storms sometimes clawed off swaths by the yard. The outlying white board fence was gone, and there seemed no reason to replace it, as the sea encroached more each season.

Bridie was dying. She had been dying for three years, her once robust housewifely body eroded by metastasized breast cancer. She had been a plump little hen, but in her last days was no bigger than a sparrow chick. Her daughter called me to the house one afternoon. Bridie was sitting on the couch in coat and hat, her handbag clutched on her lap. Her mouth was a thin line of discontent, the grey eyes magnified with unspilled tears.

“Mom is going to the hospital,” Lona explained. “We can’t get the pain under control at home.”

I had been a chaplain in an oncology unit. I knew what that meant. I knelt on the floor beside Bridie. “How do you feel about this?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go, but I’ve got no choice, it seems.” She snapped the words out, avoiding her daughter’s eye.

Her helpless anger and the unceasing pain were like lightening in the room. Her husband, Richard, came in from the yard and he and Lona helped Bridie to her feet, gently supporting her out the kitchen door, down the steps, and into the waiting car. I followed behind with her suitcase, shutting the door behind me. I put the suitcase in the trunk, kissed Bridie through the open window, and said I would see her at the hospital the next day.

I saw her every day that week, even if it were for a few minutes. I gave her communion, with her daughter at her side, when she was too weak to sit or speak. I dipped the wafer in the wine, touched it to her lips, and handed it to her daughter to consume. The cancer was in her bones, in her lungs, in her liver and kidneys. She barely smiled at me in her misery of morphine and unrelenting red pain. I never saw her alive again.

Lona called me on my cell phone at the end of the week. “Mom is slipping away, ” she said. “It won’t be long.”

I was in the barn. I went back to the rectory, changed from barn jacket and overalls into black skirt and clergy shirt, put on the black coat and drove the 25 miles to the hospital.

Dusk settling in the northern autumn air, Lona met me in the parking lot. Her father was already in the car. “She’s gone, ” she said. “I know there are things for you to do. I’d best take Dad home now.”

The nurse let me into the closed hospice room. Bridie lay on the bed, arms laid out beside her wasted body. The IVs were gone, though the needle holes were still apparent. Her eyes were half-closed, her mouth gaped, her false teeth already out. I gently pushed the eyelids closed. Warmth was still in her body. The funeral director would take care of the rest. The little mouth, once smiling and full of soft words, was open with a ghastly silent scream, a bit unnerving as I said the words.

“O ALMIGHTY God, with whom do live the spirits of just men made perfect, after they are delivered from their earthly prisons: We humbly commend the soul of this thy servant…”

Bridie had planned her funeral. Her daughter would speak, her brothers would sing, the bishop-elect, husband to Bridie’s cousin, would celebrate the funeral communion with me. Bridie – now Bridget again in the parish books – would be buried with her husband’s ancestors, across the road from the church, in Christ Church Cemetery.

I informed the wardens of the date of the funeral, and that the grave needed to be opened. And then I hit a snag, a big snag, the biggest snag one can hit at a funeral.

“The boys won’t open the grave,” one warden informed me. “I sent my husband to talk to them, and they said the last grave they would ever dig was Mortimer O’Reilly’s. And he is buried.”

I knew that. It had been my first funeral in the parish.

“Can we get Mac?” Mac did the grave duties at Sand Hill.

“No, he won’t set foot in Christ Church.”

“Even if I ask?”

She sniffed. No, not even if I asked.

I called the other warden. Now, there is a subtext to anything I write about this parish, and that is The Other Warden. An imposing  good half foot taller than me, and weighing about twice my body weight, she surveyed the church, the parish, the world, and my pulpit with a cold and calculating eye. She had a hawk-like frown above a prominent chin, and with tightly curled bleached hair, she looked like a bird of prey poised to swoop. I was the usual rabbit she snatched squealing from the charred fields that were parish council meetings.

I secretly named her Mrs. Proudie, after the bishop’s wife in Anthony’s Trollope’s Barchester novels.

She informed me that opening the grave was Joe Wainwright’s duty to arrange, not hers. He was cemetery warden.

He was away, in the States, with sick family.

She could not be expected to arrange for a burial.

I tried a desperate measure. “But Bridie is your cousin!”

She was certain, I was informed, that Bridie was not a close cousin in any way, and that was by marriage only, on her mother’s side.

I called the funeral director. “I’ve got no one down that way.”

“What about Mac?”

“Mac won’t set foot in Christ Church.”

I called The First Warden. She did not answer. I called The Other Warden again. “I can’t find a soul to do this. You are a warden. It is up to you to arrange this.”

“I do not intend to do any such thing.”

“What do you want me to do? Dig it myself?”

“You may if you wish.” And she rang off the line.

I went to the garage to see if I had an appropriate spade. Then I went back into the house and called Lona.

“I can’t get anyone to open your mother’s grave.”

She sighed.

“Joe is away, the boys won’t do it, and Mrs…I mean, Susan said I might as well do it myself.”

“Not to worry, I’ll call my uncles.”

I went by the cemetery the day of the funeral. Two tocqued and bearded heads were visible in the family plot, just at ground level. Gravel and sand flew up into a pile at graveside. I went into the church lot and found the bishop-elect parking his car behind the building.

We carried our vestments into the church. There was to be a funeral communion, and there was nothing on the altar. I began pulling drawers open in the sacristy while he hung up alb and chasuble. We found linen and candles, paten and chalice. I drove back to the rectory for wine. Returning, I found him unfurling a parament. What we thought was a purificator, for wiping the rim of the chalice, was something the size of a banquet tablecloth. We desperately dug through drawers and cupboards, and assembled something like the proper kit for a eucharist.

Mrs. Proudie tacked into church, all yards under full sail. She went to shake hands with the bishop-elect. I drew her aside and hissed, “Not anything was ready!”

She looked down her pinched nose at me. “That is Anna Wainwirght’s job, not mine.”

“You knew she was away!”

“Someone set up the altar.” She deliberately crossed my bows and took her place in a front pew, positioning a substantial handbag like a cannon aimed right at me.

It was a lovely funeral.  I stayed at the cemetery after the committal of the body, while Bridie’s brothers filled in the grave. We drove together to Bridie’s house.

I found the bishop-elect in the kitchen, which is a good place for a bishop of Irish descent. Bridie’s oldest brother found the  bottle of Jameson over the refrigerator, and we had a silent round, in Bridie’s memory.

Grave Goods

These fleeting charms of earth
Farewell, your springs of joy are dry
My soul now seeks another home
A brighter world on high

I’m a long time travelling here below
I’m a long time travelling away from home
I’m a long time travelling here below
To lay this body down

Grey, black, white headstones, the occasional earthy red granite. Some old obelisks, mostly whitewashed and moldy tablets, often broken with age, weather and vandalism. A very few metal-work crosses. A maritime cemetery, especially in the poor rural north, doesn’t have a lot of variety or interest. They were usually rather pathetic, thin ghosts of monuments, testimony to poverty, early death, a life lived on the fraying edge of a cold, windswept coastline.

Yet, despite the rigours of a northern life, the living were reluctant to let the dead go. In the Swedish community across the border in Maine, funerals still included grave goods. A thousand years of Christianity, five hundred of tough-minded Lutheran piety, and they still buried their dead with tokens. A miniature tractor, a favourite book, a stuffed animal, food and spirits. I was scandalized, frankly, when I first saw this. It was barely a step away from sacrifice of livestock, wild animals, or wives. There is a scene in the Thirteenth Warrior,  (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120657/plotsummary) that shows this pagan practice. A concubine offers herself to be burned on the funeral boat of a Viking chieftain; the prayer she recites is very moving. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5REaxl15uI; the scene begins at 07:00.)

I am an austere Christian. I live a Plain life, almost monastic. If anything, I have a theology that one needs very little on this earth, because we are meant for another Kingdom. The possessions of this world weigh us down, keep us focused on the short term distractions of Satan’s world. I do not understand grave goods. God provides all we will need in the life of the world to come.

It is incongruent to walk into an old maritime cemetery and find, besides the pathetic plastic floral tributes dropped like litter on the graves, balloons, birdbaths, gazing balls, toys and expensive floral tributes on a grave. It seems not only incongruous, but surreal. Graves heaped with funeral wreaths immediately after the burial, in lieu of turf, are common enough. But all the dizzying colours and tributes of a birthday party are strangely frightening.

Does the family expect that the deceased will come back for the party? A disturbing image of a pink-clad girl child, shrivelled in death, sitting among the funerary gifts, has come to the dark side of my mind as I stood over such a grave.

It was in Sand Hill Cemetery.  If ever there was a crossroads of life, death and pitiful disappointment, Sand Hill was it. It is an ugly disaster of a burying ground, charmless. It varied between hot and mosquito-ridden, through mournfully but not romantically mist-covered, to wind-whipped and sleet-clad. I hinted at every interment there that the parish needed to buy another property for future burials, but I might as well have shouted my thoughts to the sandstone cliffs  slowly crumbling into the Bay of Chaleur.

When I spotted the pink and purple balloon hovering over the expensive pink marble monument, I stopped there, on the graveled drive, my heart beating faster. It was outrageous. It frightened me. Suddenly, the world was all wrong.

I approached slowly, cautiously, trying to angle down the path so that I could face whatever was hiding behind the headstone. I had a horrible expectation that a clown was crouched there,w aiting for me to walk past. I don’t like clowns.

I squinted at the grave from the gravel path. Nothing was crouching there…no, except for – “Oh, God,” I whispered to myself. “What is that?”

I am, most of the time, a fearless person. Snakes, spiders, bears, dark forests – I rush in where angels fear to tread. But this – it looked like a mummified baby, in christening dress and cap.

Why did it have a balloon?

I reasoned that if it was, indeed, a dead, disinterred infant, it couldn’t hurt me. If it was something worse, I was armed with prayer and a clergy collar. And car keys. And a pretty good turn of speed for a woman in her forties.

I stalked through the gravestones, heart thudding.

It was a baby doll, face sun-crazed, christening outfit bleached and ragged from the elements. There were ceramic cats, crystals, glass hearts and even rags of birthday cards on the plinth of the stone. I again whispered, “Oh, God! What is this?”

It looked like votive offerings. In this Irish parish, and in my Scots-Irish mind, this was possible. A witch? A restless spirit? I got closer.

A framed portrait, of a blonde-haired girl. Dates on the stone: she had died at the age of nine. Scripture and a teddy bear engraved next to her name, her parents’ names, and the motto, “Never gone from our hearts.”

Nine years had passed.

There was a back story. It doesn’t matter what it is. These parents, her grandparents, aunts and uncles – all continued to live under her death. There were other children. They lived in the shadow of the child who would never have a future in this world.

I found the particulars through people I trusted in the church, and I approached the grandparents. The parents had left the church, wouldn’t see me. No one saw any problem. They could not hear me through the prison walls of their grief. That grief was a changeling. They had accepted a cold, warped memory into their home in exchange for their lost child.

I prayed at the child’s grave occasionally, on yet another of my hopeless expeditions into the byzantine maze that was Sand Hill Cemetery, not for her little soul, which I was confident was with her Saviour, but for the family, oppressed by the demon they had adopted.

Monuments and Pillars

No parish priest ever escapes the burden of the saints.

When we arrive in that first or next parish, no one cares about our GPAs, our degrees, or our resume. All they care about is how we measure up to the Local Saint. We won’t. It is impossible. Dear Old Father Nonesuch is more than a saint. He is the Local Saint. He, in retrospect, did no wrong, was wise, kind, generous, tireless, and did better than walk on water, because he snowshoed around the parish after that terrible storm in 1954, bearing communion and cookies. Or something.

He preached thunderous sermons, baptized babies by the hundreds, prayed the dying back to life, and if that failed (by the will of God) he buried them with style. If Father Nonesuch officiated in cassock and surplice, alb and stole were wrong. If Father stood at the altar in alb, stole and chasuble, all his successors must do the same or offend the sensibilities of church wardens forevermore, amen.

I was greatly handicapped in following in Father’s footsteps. In fact, all my predecessors who had followed Father Nonesuch had failed to meet that standard. To make the matter more difficult, Father had not blissfully and peaceably died in office, but was resident in the diocese. By the time I was the incumbent, he was in a very nice nursing home, mostly unaware of the world around him. If a parishioner did decide to relay the scandal of having a woman in his pulpit, and a feminine figure adorning the altar in surplice (one of the least sexy garments ever created, as it is basically a deeply gathered sheet with sleeves), he would probably reply with, “Right, captain! Send the cheese around again!”

I lived in HIS rectory, the house provided by the parish. Interesting house it was, two and a half stories in an area of constant high winds. It had been renovated for me, an undertaking delayed for a couple of decades. It became necessary when the former priest’s wife noted that snow came in around the  window frames on the north side, and an electrical fire had ruined one wall. It had seemed blasphemous to alter the decor of the gloomy old house, which was the reverse of the Tardis, as it was much smaller on the inside than it appeared from the outside.

The living room was a long, narrow, poorly lit room, dimly paneled in brown. The curtains had been brown. The carpet had been brown. The dining room had been a deep beige. The kitchen – well, words failed to describe the kitchen in its previous state. A long, narrow, poorly lit enclosed porch fronted the house, and the upstairs was a warren of small bedrooms and an abrupt hallway.  The attic was low-ceilinged, full of strange detritus, with a dormer window on the south side, and I put an orange-globed electric hurricane lamp in the window, on a timer, just for  the effect. When anyone made note of it, I would say, “Light? I didn’t know there was a light in the attic.”

My own bedroom was pink and blue, girly feminine. Since I lived alone, this was all right. My study, though, was aggressively ugly masculine. Brown, with an oak desk which I think they built the house around, because there was no imaginable way it came up the narrow stairs. I could imagine the cellar being dug, a scaffolding erected, the oak desk positioned on a rope and pulley, and then hoisted into place as the floors were built. Then the walls would go up. The only way that desk was going to leave the house without taking out a large window was with an axe.

Whenever parishioners came in to visit, they would always note that Mrs. Nonesuch would never have liked the changes.

What is not to like about a renovated bathroom where one could actually get into the bath with the door shut first? Or the lovely new electric stove, and the side by side refrigerator and freezer? Or the bright wallpaper and cheery curtains with a view over the bay? I had a washer and dryer on the first floor instead of in the dank basement. New hardwood floors gleamed throughout the downstairs rooms. It helped dispel that eternal sense of proper Anglican gloom.

I had red toile valances and cushions made for the window seat. I hung my own cheery impressionist paintings. My black cat, Jacob,  and I inhabited the rooms lightly, but mostly because I ignored the ephemeral presence of Mrs. Nonesuch. Most of her post-mortem work was in the church down the road, where things went missing, unexplained sounds echoed, and there was an everlasting cold spot in the choir, where she had  kept the sopranos in line.

Part of her husband’s saintliness had been his devotion to her as she died slowly of cancer. Mrs. Nonesuch had been of an ex-pat British family, who had emigrated to the cold shores of Northern New Brunswick after failing as tea planters in Ceylon. I have no idea what they did for business on that primitive, windswept, haunted coast, as the only trades were fishing, turnip farming, and peat harvesting. The old trades and the old ways from Ireland still held fast. But this daughter of the Empire had taught deportment, proper grammar, piano, and how to wear hats and gloves to church.

I sympathized with Father Nonesuch, having lost a husband to cancer. It is a helpless situation, doing all one can to give comfort, relieve pain, feed a body that rejects nourishment, and encourage in the clear face of hopelessness. Father Nonesuch had struggled valiantly, I heard.

There had been a remarriage for him, charmingly with an old neighbour and friend of his late wife. Who better to offer comfort to the grieving widower? Who better to make a new life, supporting each other in the last years?

I was in Sand Hill cemetery one afternoon, on one of those interminable walk-throughs to find a gravesite. Mac, the gravedigger, couldn’t sort out which family of O’Reillys, in that numerous clan, was to receive the earthly remains of the recently deceased O’Reilly. Was it the Pat O’Reillys or the Tommy O’Reillys? I had to spend a couple of hours with parish records, another half hour with a graveyard warden, and I was then walking the graves, little wire flags in hand, to mark the appropriate plot.

In the mosquito haunted grass at the back of the Anglican quarter,  I came upon a stone I hadn’t seen before. Marked simply “Elizabeth Hannah Spencer Nonesuch” with the dates of her birth and death, I was surprised by the unpretentious size and its tasteless heart shape, of a sort reserved for infants and little girls. I pushed my sweat-damp hair back from my forehead and said a quick prayer for the deceased. I’m sure she didn’t appreciate it, but then, all the more reason to offer it.

As I walked on, I turned back quickly and realized something.

There was no room for another burial, no room for another name on the headstone.

“Why, you old dog,” I whispered to the absent Father Nonesuch.

Family Secrets

Sand Hill Cemetery was my least favourite burial ground. It was chaotic, ugly and oh, yes – sandy. Its plot map was a secret passed from one old man to a middle-aged man, who then grew old, and tried to impart his knowledge to another generation. It had all the romantic peace of a highway divider. Internecine quarrels erupted over who had rights to which plot.

Considering the crowding in the cemetery, and the refusal to move future burials elsewhere, I suggested a columbarium. This is a monument or wall, usually stone, at least on the face, with niches for cremains – human ashes, the result of cremation. It is space efficient, sanitary, and the niches clearly delineated. Columbaria are designed so that flower vases can be attached, if desired. Each occupied niche is marked clearly with the personal information of the deceased. It is an economical alternative to an expensive casket, burial plot and headstone.

The parish council refused to consider it. Cremation, in their old world Irish minds, was pagan at worst, uncaring at best. They did not want the family to think of them as the sort of son or daughter who would just have Mother burned. Explaining that the church allows for it, that it just speeds up the natural process, that it is a money saving alternative to traditional funeral practices, all fell on stopped ears.

They loved traditional funerals. They loved the Anglican service – Book of Common Prayer only, none of that Alternative Services thing – they loved the traditional music, they loved the funeral lunch and the long processions from church to grave. They compared floral tributes. “Well, I think Gussy could have sent a better bouquet than that for her aunt. She certainly laid out enough for Uncle Ted.”  “I think Gladys’s flowers were the nicest, though, with all those red carnations.” “Hmph, she could  have afforded roses.”

The traditional dead spread, or funeral lunch, was considered necessary. Anyone who did not entertain the hundred or more people who showed up for even a weekday funeral was considered low and mean, as in cheap. When one frail elderly widow was not up for the rigors of the funeral lunch, and her citified children decided to skip the tradition entirely, words were said. “Low” and “mean” were included, as in, “Your father was never so low and mean about anything.” And this was true – he had been a generous, helpful, good-humoured man. So the ladies (or the girls, as they referred to themselves, and I could not use that term for them as too familiar) whipped together a regular dead spread at the parish hall, and although only the two older adult children attended, and not the widow and her youngest daughter, it was considered appropriately successful.

The dead spread was finger sandwiches of egg, tuna, cream cheese (with olives or maraschino cherries) or salmon blended with…something. I don’t know what, because one taste told me I didn’t need to know, as I would never eat another. There were cookies, slices of banana, pumpkin or lemon bread. Copious amounts of tea were brewed, with a pot of coffee. Bread and cheese were laid out in pretty patterns. A flask of whisky made the rounds in the parking lot, among the pallbearers and close male family. Weather and fishing were discussed among the men, gardens and grandchildren among the women. I would have a cup of tea (the coffee was usually horrendous,) sit with the family for a while, and then leave, as these affairs often stretched on until the food and tea were gone, a good two hours or more.

It seemed that the Sand Hill burials were always a problem. After the third one, I made it a practice to call the grave digger the day before the funeral to make sure we had a grave, and that it would be accessible.

We buried Pearl at Sand Hill, after she had spent the last three years of her life in a nursing home. Pearl had loved the nursing home. She had spent most of her life bearing and caring for fourteen children and a demanding, abusive husband. When she was finally weak enough to require constant care, she had readily agreed to a managed facility. Pearl  enjoyed the attention, the meals made for her and brought to her if she chose, the company at hand. It was like a vacation to her after decades on a hardscrabble, sour-soil farm in the north, cleaning, washing, baking, and then starting all over again. Pearl was of an age where she had gone out in the fields to work beside her husband, she directing the plow behind a weather-beaten work horse, a baby tied in a shawl at her breast, the little ones trailing behind her. When Pearl would find herself pregnant again, she would open the windows and start throwing the contents of her dresser and closet out into the yard, as if desperately trying to escape with what she could carry.

Pearl’s burial sparked one of those family quarrels about the burial plot. Typical of poor families, they had bought a small plot with what money they had, sometime back in the 1940s, for a mother or father or child. Other graves were made on its borders, so there was no room for immediate family members to buy near the family stone. I got a call from the funeral director about it.

“I can’t put Pearl next to Liam.”

“Who is buried in her place?” It crossed my mind that Liam, the old scoundrel, had somehow contrived this, although he had been dead 20 years.

“I don’t know. Probably a child. When we sounded we found what seems to be a small casket.” Sounding with a long brass rod driven into the ground until it hit something or went deeper than four feet was standard practice at Sand Hill.

“Have you talked to the family yet?” I asked.

“Yes, they think it was a child who died in the 1950s. I can’t find any record.  The son wants me to go ahead and open the grave, but Mac won’t do it. The casket seems to be solid, so I’m saying he’s right. Then the daughter wants me to put Mom on top of Dad.”

I banished the horrifying and incorrect image that crept into my brain.

“If that is a possibility, put her in with the child.”

“Well, it isn’t going to happen either way. Mac won’t open a grave that has a burial in it already.”

Mac was the superstitious and somewhat squeamish grave digger. He was quite in awe of me. I would appear in black cassock and white surplice, soundly shod in thick boots, say the words, stand by as he back-filled the grave, and disappear. He never saw me any other time, as he was a Roman Catholic. I was this ephemeral faerie, drifting in and out of reality, appearing only for the dead. I was the bane of his own priest’s life, my presence barely acknowledged at clergy meetings. Father Dupres once barked at me in a crowded arena, where I had the audacity to wear my clerical collar, “What is this outfit? What are you?”

I arranged to meet the eldest of Pearl’s children at the cemetery that evening. In a light rain, prophesied to be a heavy rain by the interment, we looked at the family plot. Mac had flagged the newly found burial. Neither of the adult children could recall what sibling may have been buried there. They hinted that there may have been a child born before the marriage who lived but a couple of years, or it may have been a sibling born immediately after them who  had died before school age, but they simply couldn’t recall, nor could they find any mention of another child. We left it as a mystery.

They discussed whether their mother’s casket would fit between two other burials, but I explained that modern caskets are larger than the caskets of days past, and it would be impossible to shoehorn vault and casket in a narrow space.

I then took them to another small plot, on the edge of the cemetery. A crabapple tree bloomed over it. “We thought this might be a good alternative for Pearl,” I explained.

They stood at the foot. Mist filled the hollows. The sweet smell of apple blossom settled over us.

“Look,” the daughter said. “It’s right next to Jeannette.” She looked up at me. “She was Mum’s best friend. They were inseparable. Mum never got over her death.”

We contemplated the silent grave.

“All right, ” the son said. “This is good. Mum would be happier next to Jeannette than she ever would have been next to Dad.”

All families have secrets. They may be big, frightening secrets that take decades to unravel, if they are ever unknotted from the souls of the children. Some families have small, quiet secrets. Some have both, and the grave may be the last place they are kept.