Cemeteries are designed to be beautiful, peaceful places. Yet, how many of us return to visit a loved one’s grave? Some people are cemetery visitors, and some are not, a rabbi told me recently.
Today, as I began some revisions on my memoir about grief and faith, I thought a lot about Rose Hill Cemetery in Chicago where my brother is buried. It is a strikingly beautiful place with ponds and century-old trees. Geese and ducks flock there. I have been there a handful of times since 1986, the year my brother Kevin died in a car accident at age 23. Am I adverse to cemeteries? I am not sure. What I know: Cemeteries are less daunting for me if someone else tags along.
It still chills me to think of August 7, 1986. It was my late brother’s 24th birthday, and I was intent on visiting Kevin’s grave. It was five months after his death, and I went to the cemetery alone. I was 21 and finishing up graduate school at Northwestern. I figured it could be a while before I might return to Chicago. I went to the grave partly to try to say goodbye to my brother and partly to seek peace for a grief tearing me up inside. For what seemed like hours, I drove in circles. One cemetery plot looked like another. The cemetery map was useless. Road signs – labeled with a letter of the alphabet – were hard to see. Soon, I was weeping and driving. I just wanted to find my brother’s grave. I drove by the same pond of geese three times. I swore in the car. I yelled at a God I did not believe in much at the time.
Finally, I found the cemetery office again and a staff member led me by car to the grave site. I set flowers on my brother’s headstone. Peace, though, did not come that day. The bleak images of the funeral came rushing back. My parents standing together looking ripped apart. The thud of the dirt on my brother’s coffin. At the graveside, I was all alone, and what I wanted most of all was forever out of my grasp: a hug from my fun-loving brother.
I have gone back again to the grave, but never again returned alone. Roughly eight years ago, I stood there with a first cousin and his toddler son and shared stories. Two years ago, in August 2008, I stood by my brother’s grave with my husband and our baby boy. Our son was just seven months old. Happy to be outside, he grinned and giggled. I could not help but smile back. Sadness mixed with happiness, and it felt just right. My brother would have turned 46 that August.
I likely will never be a “cemetery person.” And yet when I am in Chicago, something always makes me want to return to Rose Hill. The cemetery no longer gives me nightmares. When I visit, I appreciate the place’s beauty. The trees and ponds are not there for the dead. Cemeteries are adorned for the survivors in the hope that someday we might visit.