People often visit gravesites to commune with whatever piece of their soul might hover in that environment. I have a friend who takes the Easter lilies I give her each year to her husband’s grave, and another who devoted herself to restoring an overgrown, neglected burial ground in South Carolina. There is a woman in New York who advertises her services ($25-35) to visit nearby gravesites to pay respects, deliver flowers, say a prayer, take a photo or just tend to the site for those who cannot get there for one reason or another.
However cemetery visits are done by different people, religions, age groups and descendants, they're all meaningful in their own particular way.
In my family, burial plots are sentimental focal points, to be sure, but since my siblings and I are spread out – South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia – we tend to make family treks every few years to our parents’ grave sites in Connecticut, piggybacking a visit with cousins at the same time.
For my brother’s 60th birthday this year, my sister concocted a trip down memory lane which would take him to our early-childhood neighborhood in New Jersey; to the Nyack, N.Y. cemetery where our maternal grandparents are buried; and, finally, to the small cemetery in Old Saybrook, Conn. where our parents’ ashes were placed in the ground, not far from our paternal grandparents.
Along for the ride were my siblings’ spouses and one of my nieces and one of my nephews – both in their 20s and huge fans of their grandfather though neither of them knew their grandmother, our mother, who died in 1969.
I joined the birthday tour in New York just in time for the visit to Oak Hill Cemetery, high on the west bank of the Hudson River. The historic, lush and tree-filled grounds, dedicated in 1848, are the permanent resting place for artist Edward Hopper, actress Helen Hayes and writer Carson McCullers, among other luminaries.
The luminaries for us, though, were Dorothea Smith Moeller (1896-1981) and Richard Henry Moeller (1897- 1975) – Dottie and Dick to us. Our mother’s parents were very much a part of our growing up – we visited them in New Jersey and then in Florida where they retired – and our bonds grew stronger, from sadness and need, after our mother died, at 45.
I had rediscovered a note from Dottie in an envelope marked To be opened at the proper timewhich I had with me to read at the top of the hill:
For all those dear to me…
Do not be sad – I am going to exactly the goal I have looked for since Dick died. There will be my Lord, Peace, Mother, Father, Hebe, Dick, Dede – and I shall be safe, enfolded & I have been sustained every day to think of this. My life has been full, gorgeous ups and downs & much more happiness than most people know of – & you my dear children have made these years joyous with your love to me.
Mother, Grandmother, Friend
Then teary-eyed, we poured over our grandfather’s 11 siblings whose headstones filled the majestic Dr. Henry Moeller plot and reminisced with the two younger members of our party about people and times we thought so far removed from them, but the spirit – dare I say spirits? – seemed to move them, too, as they paid their respects to the departed… and maybe a stronger connection was rooted that day.
The connections to origins, families and endings definitely deepened at the Cypress Cemetery on Saybrook Point, an old burial ground that at 375 years, is one of the oldest in the country. On all our family headstones here, some care was taken at each death to engrave the granite with some creative, personal icons to fit the character and lifestyle of the deceased. It started in 1964 with the death of our grandfather, Ted Mulliken, a duck hunter and decoy manufacturer with a beautiful engraved mallard on the stone he later shared with his wife, our grandmother, Carmen, who shared his love of nature and hunting.
When our mother was buried in 1969, we had blossoms of dogwood and azalea adorning her stone to represent her love and appreciation for the natural beauty of those eagerly awaited springtime blooms. To her, they provided some respite from the horrors of the war in Vietnam which she watched daily from her hospital bed.
Our father’s stone includes a proud – yes, one couldsay cocky – rooster as well as his familiar trademark scribble, a character he called a Woffle Noffle. In a tribute to his memory, George Soper’s grandson, Gray, now sports an exact tattoo of this fantastic creature on his left arm. We all wondered what our conservative dad would make of that!
In another small church cemetery on top of Grassy Hill in nearby Old Lyme, our uncle Richard Lee’s stone features an ear of corn – his favorite to farm and eat – and musical notes representing his guitar playing and square dance calling.
I am always emotional in visiting the particularly special place in Saybrook with a spectacular view of the marsh, and this time was no different.
As we all get older facing our own mortality, of course we ponder where we want to “end up” and how we want to be remembered. The places visited on this Graveyard Tour feel comfortable to me. The natural beauty embodies the Church of the Great Outdoors where I am most comfortable worshipping, and I know I would like ashes sprinkled in both Nyack and Saybrook, connecting me to both sides of the family in a way that seems paternal, maternal and, well, eternal.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband.