Looking back on the Sunday of All Saints
17 The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
I should have put on an old pair of jeans before I took the flowers from the altar over to the cemetery; now my “good jeans” have stained knees from kneeling before the gravestones of Grammy and Grampa, Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Victor, Aunt Vivian and Uncle Jack, and the bench my mother donated in memory of my brother, where she has a plot for when the time comes. My stepfather is also there, not all that far from my brother’s bench.
It’s unusual in Palo Alto for a whole family to be in one place – except for my brother buried in Des Moines, Iowa, and my daughter in Livonia, Michigan. But Anna grew up in Michigan, and her mother and I were both still there when the shattering phone call came.
I bought a pair of grass clippers in Des Moines one year, and have kept them in my car ever since so I can tend Ken’s grave whenever I drive across country. I used them today on all the family members, including my stepfather. My half-brother and sister are some distance away; so I cut away the creeping grass, trimmed the edges, pulled away the dead leaves, cleaned the stone and left flowers for them.
I also picked an untended grave at random, trimmed the grass and cleaned the stone. When I was through I could see the name and that his body had been laid there in 1987 when he was just shy of 54. It had been a long time since anyone had been there – though there is space on the stone for another.
I am not quite sure why that desire struck me. Perhaps because I couldn’t tend Anna’s or Ken’s today. Perhaps because all week my mind has been on all those I have buried over the years: infants and children and young men shot down in the prime of their youth, victims of tragic accidents, victims of tragic diseases, victims of the years. I was troubled that I could not remember all their names, that their stories were fading from memory – stories that deserved to be remembered. Rich, complex, full and sometimes agonizingly short stories, but all of them connected in a web of family and friends and fellow congregants – though some of those ties were painfully few or terribly frayed.
But they deserved to be remembered and I couldn’t. I can’t even hold these members of my own family in memory. I remember pieces, like a photo album from those days when the pictures were held in by those little corners you would lick and stick. Over time the glue would give way and photos would fall out. So the pictures in the album become fewer and fewer.
They all deserve to be remembered and I can’t. I should have written down all their names and stories. I should have noted the location of each grave so they could all be visited. There must be a couple dozen in the cemetery where my daughter lies, but who or where I can’t remember.
It was always my practice to wait after the family had gone and watch as the cemetery workers sealed the vault and brought in the dirt. I wanted to be able to testify to the family that it was complete, that their loved one was indeed there beneath the soil.
But I didn’t keep a record. I have the sermons I wrote – at least those that I can still access. Others are on old floppies written by programs that no longer exist. Many more were written by typewriter on paper. I have no idea if any of them remain in the bottom of some forgotten box.
I remember a cemetery in Toledo, standing with a small clutch of family in an old graveyard surrounded on three sides by the clanking and smells of an oil refinery. It is a vivid memory, a strange and holy peace in the midst of industrial chaos, but I no longer know who it was we laid in the ground. They deserve to be remembered. They all deserve to be remembered. But their stories slip away. We slip away.
The psalmist’s cry touches near to home.
“What is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Psalm 8:4RSV).
The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10 RSV)
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)
But then there comes the sweet word of Psalm 139.
1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord,
you know it completely.
There is one who knows our stories. And God remembers.