A week or two ago as I was driving home I was perplexed to see an American flag flying at half mast. I don’t know why I do this, but I tend to segregate different parts of my life. You know. I have this life at work that doesn’t really intersect with the life I have at my apartment, which is completely separate from the life I have when I visit Girlfriend. The trip home from work is disconnected from all of them, so I saw the flag, and it puzzled me for a few moments until I realized that it had been lowered in memory of the bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Perhaps it was this moment of confusion that did it, but I started to wonder what made the three deaths in Boston “worth more” than the thousands of deaths that happen around the world every day. Not to belittle the tragedy of that bombing. But is it any less a tragedy when anyone loses a loved one? Should any flag ever be raised all the way to the top of the flag pole?
Fast forward to this morning. My daughter spent the night at my apartment last night, and I drove her back to my ex-wife’s house this morning so that she could attend church with the rest of the family. Along the road between her house and my apartment lies a cemetery. For the past few months or so, I have been thinking every time I pass it, “Oh, I should stop there sometime when I have a little time.” Today I had a little time. So I stopped.
The sun was shining. It was maybe 60 degrees. There was a slight breeze. The grass was perhaps not the most luscious I’d ever seen, but it was mostly green and had evidence of having recently been maintained. The large number of dandelions is really what caught my eye, though. I found it a sad testament to human nature–maybe slightly ironic, or perhaps simply indicative that real life and our ideals don’t often coincide–that a place dedicated to the idea of remembering had been neglected (forgotten?) to the point that it was being overrun with dandelions.
I wandered the cemetery, taking pictures here and there. A bee, laden with swollen globs of pollen already on its back legs, rooting around the yellow of a dandelion, with headstones blurred out in the background. A set of dates, only days apart, that marked the heartbreak of hopes and dreams extinguished. A religious quote or two. “How are you preparing for eternity?” And a secular quote: “Your life enriched mine.” A headstone only partially visible behind a bush that had gotten much bigger than the gardener had intended.
I don’t know about you, but when I walk in a cemetery, I can’t but allow my imagination to fill in all sorts of details surrounding the names and dates listed. A wife that had died just 11 days before the husband became a story of beautiful love that couldn’t survive long past the deaths of either of the two individuals. A tombstone with only a first name and a year turned into the sad story of a baby taken in the first few months of life. A girl who died at the age of three made me think of the Mormon doctrine that our children who precede us in death will be allowed to continue their childhood years with us in the hereafter. A man and wife on a single headstone that showed the wife dying some fifty years before the husband was set next to a headstone that listed another woman who also shared the same last name, but who was some ten years younger than the first wife and lived fifteen years after the husband had died. In my mind she became the self-sacrificing second wife who allowed her husband to be buried in the same plot as his first wife. A man who had died a few months before what would have been his 70th wedding anniversary. This was the couple who had done the near-impossible, had found and maintained an ideal love for the length of their lives.
I chanced upon a small stone, set level with the grass, without either a name or date engraved on it. It looked really worn and old. I rubbed my fingers across its surface to see if I could sense a small indentation that might give a clue to what had once been engraved upon it but that time had worn away. There was nothing. It was simply a marker. Perhaps set by a family too poor to afford the fee for the engraver’s touch. Perhaps it was placed after an illness had robbed them of the life of a young child. I don’t know why, but that small unengraved slab of rock affected me more than any of the others. It whispered to me of tragedy, of unfairness, of the cold realities of life.
These stories and more filled my head as I walked slowly through the cemetery. It was a solemn morning. I was filled with respect. With sobriety. With a touch of sadness. All of these people. They all had dreams. They all had ideas about life and about what they wanted. About what life meant for them. And they all shared the same fate, at least in the very end. The same fate I too will one day share: to be no more, and for the world to continue on without me.
I have to admit I felt a little … religious … this morning. I reflected on the fact that while I was wandering among the markers of the dead, my family was at that very moment sitting on a church pew partaking of the sacrament. Jesus had died, too, and every Sunday people gathered to remember. I realized this morning that there is power in remembering.
We grow stronger as a people, as a community, as fellowships when we remember together. It’s why we celebrate holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. It’s why we have cemeteries. These shared memories bind us together. There is a certain sacrament, a little of the sacred, in remembering.
It was only as I was leaving the cemetery that I noticed that the flag was lowered to half-mast. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was due to laziness and it was still there from the Boston bombings. Perhaps it was lowered anew due to the explosion at the factory in Texas. For all that I keep up with the news, maybe something even more recent had happened that I hadn’t yet heard about. But for me, it was enough to think that perhaps every flag in every cemetery flies at half-mast every day. Because that flag also helps us remember. And it’s not just the high profile deaths we should remember. We can remember even the life of whomever lies below that simple unengraved stone. Religious or not, we can all participate in the sacrament of remembering.