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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.


About Julie

Bishop of the church and religious order ICCO in The YOKE, based in Iowa City. Former Anglican parish priest, shepherd for ten years, artist, and writer.

7 responses to “Family Secrets

  1. Wow. What a story!

    Also… you seem to go to a lot of cemeteries.
    You must have a lot of good pictures?

  2. Pingback: New Blog Link « Anglican, Plain

  3. Susan W

    Old Pioneer Mormon cemeteries in Eastern AZ are interesting to roam through. Joseph City, AZ, for instance. Bleak, small, tidy and cared for. Most if not all gravestones had where they were married (along with birth and death dates) and what temple them were “sealed” at: SLC, UT or Mesa, AZ mostly. An occasional plaque stating that the occupant was a handcart puller, meaning they crossed the Plains pulling all their earthly belongings in a handcart, down now what is called Immigration Canyon, to SLC. That makes them REAL aristocracy, then as well as now, and their descendants, in Mormon circles, no matter how wealthy or hardscrabble you may be at the moment.

  4. JRJ2015 ⋅

    Good Afternoon 🙂 I Pray you are having a Blessed Day….


  5. HouseCat

    I always find your writings keep me reading, whatever it is you write of, even if it is dark family secrets, hard lives and such things as the death of a child being forgotten or obscured. I am glad she was buried next to her best friend. It is better to be buried beside one who made you happy than beside one that wore you down.

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