In spirit, not in stone

I won’t be able to visit very many of my own relatives in cemeteries. Maybe that’s okay.

A couple years ago, after years of visiting other people’s relatives in cemeteries, I decided it was time to visit some of my own. I could visit my paternal grandparents; I had as a teenager, and probably will again. I could visit my aunt, buried near Yakima Washington. I couldn’t visit my maternal grandparents, because they’d been cremated and their ashes scattered. Nor could I visit my great-aunt Llewella, whose ashes were scattered at sea.

But I could visit my maternal great-grandparents (my mother’s father’s parents), in the Spanaway Washington area. I never knew them, but I’d heard about them from my mother and I thought it would be a nice gesture to visit. I could visit other pioneer cemeteries in the area too. So off I went.

Photo by the author

The Bethany Cemetery was a pleasant place, but my visit there was a bit anti-climactic. I didn’t know what I’d been expecting—an emotional reaction, some insight?—but instead I felt confused. I wasn’t sure what I should do, or say, or feel. It wasn’t me who had the emotional connection to my great-grandparents, but my mother and her family. Did anyone else have a connection? Who else would visit or remember them? And if not, what was the point of being buried there? (As usual, I was overthinking things.)

Seeing daily life in this semi-rural part of Washington, and seeing the high school where my great-grandfather taught in Eatonville was fun, but also kind of confusing. I felt it helped explain the more conservative nature of my mother’s family, but I wasn’t sure what relevance or meaning that would have for us today.

I had enjoyed tracking my ancestors’ resting places through Findagrave, finding distant relatives in far-flung corners of the United States. But if I visited my great-great-grandparents’ graves in the midwest, would I just be confused again? It would be a fun excuse for a trip, but it would probably more satisfying to visit living distant relatives in Texas or Montana, and maybe I will someday.

As our options expand for processing our earthly remains, fewer and fewer of us will end up in the ground with a stone, plaque or memorial to mark our presence on the planet. That’s a good thing for the planet. What’s a good thing for us? There won’t be gravesites to visit…but maybe there don’t need to be? Perhaps it’s better to find meaning and memory in spirit, not in stone.

Stump and Lamb explores personal growth and meaning via travels to pioneer cemeteries of the West.

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