Grieving my father.

When I was young, driving past cemeteries always filled me with angst. It made no sense that the vast grids of marble and granite somehow served to comfort those left behind after death. Whenever I heard about or saw family members visiting gravesites, I would always think it odd that human beings feel close to their departed loved ones by visiting a slab of stone engraved with the name, birth, and death dates of the person who died.

My father died several months ago now, and I visit his grave often. Father’s Day drew me back to St. Ann’s Cemetery the day after he was buried and many more visits followed. Initially, I thought I would feel nothing but sadness and grief if I dared to return to the site where I said my last goodbyes, but I was surprised I felt close to him. Being there filled me with a sense of peace. I felt like he was there, watching over me, and I could hear him saying, “I’m with you.”

My dad brought me to see the gravestone many years before he died. One Memorial Day I drove my parents to St. Ann’s Cemetery so they could lay some flowers on my grandparents’ graves. After we paid our respects, my dad asked, “Do you want to see where me and your mother are going?” I was a little shocked and I asked, “You didn’t buy your gravestone already, did you?”

“Sure I did, and I’ll show you where it is — go up this road and turn left.”

As we wound through the narrow cemetery roads, we arrived at the corner of Section 49. My dad told me to park and the three of us got out and started walking. He walked over to a pink granite gravestone, put his hand on top of it and said, “Here it is.” It was so strange seeing my parents’ names and birth dates engraved on a tombstone as each one stood beside me at the gravesite, still alive. I was even more horrified when I walked around to see the other side of the stone where one of my favorite photos of them was staring back at me. My parents surveyed the site, utterly at ease, walking on the ground that would later be dug up to make way for their coffins. The knot in my stomach grew tighter while they chatted back and forth about where we should go to get a pizza.

When I asked my father why he thought it was necessary not only to buy the gravestone but to affix their photo to it, and then bring me to see it, he simply said, “Because you have to do this.” I now believe he was right.

That event years ago was upsetting, but in a way, it lessened my burden when the day finally came to bury my father in a place that was familiar to him, and now, familiar to me too. He was not afraid even though the last thing my dad wanted to do was to die. Going to St. Ann’s nearly a decade before he died to view my parent’s final resting place gave me a well of strength later when I passed through those imposing cemetery gates with his casket. The once unthinkable prospect of participating in such a dreaded ritual somehow became manageable, allowing me to grieve in a meaningful way when the day was finally upon me.

Whenever I visit his grave, I think back to that day with the three of us standing there, his big hand resting on top of his own stone and the two of them relating to each other in a completely normal and relaxed manner. It was a bit unnerving for me since it was taking place in the middle of a cemetery, but it is a moment frozen in time. The memory is triggered as soon as I approach that piece of pink granite. I see his face and hear his words and I feel close to him.

The importance of cemeteries in the lives of the living is different for everyone but I think I have a little more insight now about their purpose. I always wondered why people returned to the sites where their loved ones are buried, searching for comfort in a place so filled with sadness and death. I was sure I would never be one of those people. But, ironically, he feels alive to me when I am there. He was my dad for 58 years and that relationship survives even though he is no longer physically here with me. He was not afraid of St. Ann’s and now, neither am I.

Lena is a writer, dog lover, and master gardener. She writes about family, politics, and society.

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