Published: Sunday, May 30, 1999
Visit to family graves offers opportunity for remembering the good
CLARK MORPHEW: Staff Columnist
My parents' graves are in a small cemetery surrounded by corn fields, situated on a gravel road just three miles north of my hometown.
This is Iowa, where hard-working people live and die without much fanfare. There are cemeteries around my hometown where the grass gets mowed and the graves are tidied for Memorial Day. Those cemeteries have what is known as perpetual care. In the cemetery where my parents are buried, with no perpetual care, the grass gets mowed only once or twice a summer but the graves, remarkably, still look pretty good.
Last weekend, my two brothers and I met in Nora Springs, the old hometown, had a quick lunch at the Nora Inn and went to the graveyard where Mom and Dad are buried. The entire cemetery is about 250 feet square, just a little plot of land carved out of someone's field and set aside for the dead.
We are represented there in good numbers. My Uncle Howard and Aunt Hattie and some of their children occupy a big family plot. The graves of other uncles and aunts -- Carl, Faye, Valda -- dot the cemetery. My great-grandfather Humphrey Sturgis Morphew is buried there, as well as my grandparents, Humphrey Junior and Elizabeth. And all around are the many Morphew infants and small children who did not survive the cold winters and the humid summers.
It's a fairly sobering experience to go there. The trees appear to be living their last days. Some trees have died; they are lopped off at chest level and left to rot. The grass is always a bit too long, even after it has been freshly mowed. The rumor is that the farmer down the road rides his mower over the terrain a couple of times a summer.
Three or four times a summer, my older brother, Nolan, who lives in town, takes his weed chopper to the cemetery and tidies up all the Morphew graves. Then when the harsh winters have passed, the three brothers go to the parents' graves, plant petunias in the urn, look hard at the graves, and leave without saying very much. It's duty, we say, and not a spiritual exercise at all. It is just something we do because Mom and Dad were good parents, and all the relatives left us with blessed memories.
My parents, Darrell and Dorothy, have a unique stone marker on their graves. It states their names and as further identification it says, ``Parents of Nolan, Clark and Larry.'' We were what they treasured. We were all they wanted out of life.
Driving back to my home in Minnesota this past Sunday, I thought about the most unkept cemetery I had ever seen. It was the community graveyard of an Amish colony in Southern Minnesota. It was about 20 feet by 20 feet and grown over with a tangle of weeds almost too thick to penetrate. But when the weeds were parted and crushed, a tiny collection of gravestones became visible. They bore only dates of birth and death. No names cluttered the markers. There could be no mistake: Mankind would not be honored there.
I remembered also a graveyard in Norfolk, Va., situated on the grounds of a lovely old Episcopal church where a pirate was buried. His marker stated his name and his crimes, so history would not forget. And there were others, politicians and statesmen, business leaders and venerated clerics -- all forgotten except in the history books.
The graves were leaning, some had fallen and others were covered with moss. It was almost as if the keepers of this graveyard were saying it didn't matter, bones were bones and no human being could be honored forever. But some people get stuck in legends, and relatives carry those through the generations as kind of a symbol of family nobility.
Sometime in life one realizes that funerals, burials and graves are important for a family. At least for a time, they are the reality we return to again and again, sometimes to grieve but usually just to remember. If it wasn't for holy times such as Memorial Day, some families would forget, and all the symbols of goodness and kindness would disappear. In a full measure, we are what our relatives wanted us to be. We have become the embodiment of their admonitions.
Columnist Clark Morphew (firstname.lastname@example.org)