A Letter to My Youngest upon Wandering through a Graveyard

By Derek Penwell

Dear Dominic,

I want to tell you about a graveyard I wandered through today. It was rainy and chilly, which seems appropriate if you're going to wander through a place where dead people make their home.

A dry-stone wall rings this patch of land. The stones, which have soft moss colonizing an inhospitable world, are stacked in a way that first appears haphazard, but in reality has its own sense of order and purpose. I suspect that each of those stones has a story to tell about the world that formed them and the hands that laid them.

I'd like you to see what I see and hear what I hear as I wander. The train offers up a plaintive sigh in the distance, while birds perched on a broken branch occasionally provide their own commentary on the landscape we behold.

As you walk down the rows, between the gravestones, you can smell the musky scent of the creek that lies just beyond the far wall. You may also notice that a great deal of time seems telescoped into a very small space, neighbors from different centuries tend their sad homes side by side in this humble stretch of ground.

You may also notice that old people and young people reside next to one another, making their ages unimportant in ways apparently impossible for those of us who tread new paths on top of these old dwellings. But the gravestones, rather than a barrier, form a community whose requirements for membership do not extend to such unspeakably insignificant things as age (or race, or gender, or class, or religion, or sexual orientation, for that matter).

The whisper of the creek carries the muted voices of this particular neighborhood, muted voices anxious to tell a thousand different stories–stories that even the wise stones are not articulate enough to tell. 

You cannot quite make out the details of the stories in the language the creek speaks, but you can imagine the tales the whisper wants to tell. And as the creek continues to unfold its watery narrative, you may begin to notice that the stories themselves are alive, that each piece of limestone that stands in the water's way, rather than prevent them, allows the stories to be told again and again–an eternal record of the community gathered.

You may sense the spirit of those buried joining together, an expectant company of those departed but still strangely present, hoping desperately for someone to stop and listen to lives that we often think have slipped quietly into the darkness, but lives that continue to speak nevertheless–even though it's true that most times the only ones there to hear already abide in this sacred community, among the broken stones that surround them and the rippling stream that gives voice to their longing.

I want you to wander through this graveyard with me, my son, so that you may recognize the muted voices of our own lives, which will one day also join this commonwealth and be borne upon the song of the waters. A strange joy to be welcomed home.