How do you choose words to be carved in stone for eternity? Recently I tried to find an epitaph for my father’s gravestone. When I agreed to help my mother, I thought it would be easy, being a wordsmith, but it was not.
Do you try to sum up an individual’s life, or a couple’s lives, in a few words such as Friend to All or Devoted Parents? Do you choose a general statement on death like At Rest? Do you address the living: Be ye also ready, or speak to the dead: We will meet again? Amongst the most popular are Gone but not Forgotten and Ever Remembered, Ever Loved; a few months ago I would have said they were uninspired but now I share the tender emotions.
I leafed through books of famous quotations at a library, studied old hymn books, and read gravestones in local cemeteries but nothing suited my father, and my mother, who will share the plot some day. Then one evening my mother showed me a sketch of what she had in mind. Along with their names, dates, and a sheaf of wheat to symbolize both my father’s tie to the land and my mother’s love of baking, she had coined the phrase, Loving Hands At Rest. It was perfect. My parents, like many rural folk, dedicated their lives to caring for their family, church, and community, a devotion that involved a lot of hard work, done without complaint, done with love.
I look forward to the headstone’s installation. I visit the cemetery often but have difficulty with the rawness of my father’s grave. The phrase “a fresh grave” is a misnomer because without flowers or grass, with desolate dirt, it is the antithesis of fresh. It would be futile to plant anything because the earth is still settling and erecting the monument will involve some excavation and disruption.
I leave bouquets on his grave: pussy willows, tulips, lilacs, and irises, but they look so forlorn. There is no peace there right now. Just over the fence, three dogs confined in a small yard bark constantly. It is not the yelping which bothers me but the poor dogs’ plight. Invariably I drift over to the other side of the cemetery.
Along the way I always stop at a very old monument which says, But o for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still. It is a quaint phrase, but oh-so-true. Further over in the “pioneer section” is an old, bleached, white stone marking the grave of a young girl which reads, Weep not for the loved one so rudely from thee driven, Thou had a flower too good for earth, transplanted into heaven. I wonder what flower she resembled, and what bouquets her parents brought to the grave.
In the far corner of the cemetery is a toolshed. My father serviced the lawn mowers year after year for decades. He always grumbled when the teenagers hired to cut the grass pushed the mowers until wheels fell off or parts were lost, and then brought them to him, a volunteer nearly 80 years old, to fix. He repaired the mowers countless times, and when there wasn’t enough money in the cemetery’s account for replacement parts, he gave the grass-cutters one of his own for the rest of season.
My mother also devotes a lot of time to cemetery business. Her family tree in the graveyard reaches to great-grandparents and she knows all of the other family plots. Folks call her looking for their ancestors or when they want to bury ashes and even when they want to complain about plastic flowers or dead branches. Although it is officially the Westmeath Union Cemetery, Mom and Dad always referred to it as “the darn, old cemetery.” Their words were edged with frustration, but their actions were shaped by duty and commitment.
Loving Hands At Rest, indeed.
Patti Desjardins lives near Westmeath, Ont.