Old Salem Cemetery

Old Salem Cemetary

Old Salem Cemetery

The square marble white stones
lie flat in straight rows
in God’s acre: unity,
liberty, and love.

No gaudy spire
of a wealthy patriarch;
no spreading plot of a family
blessed with many offspring.

The bachelor, the single woman,
the infant, the child–each in a choir
that someday will rise up and sing
along with the married folks.

The brass bands gather
and play across the rolling grounds
each Easter morning: trumpet,
trombone, euphonium…harmony.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Feb. 9, 2014

“Wait ’til Mom gets home!”

Over the Memorial Day Weekend, my only conversations are with Sebastian (Shih Tzu-Bichon Frise), and Maggie (Three quarters West Highland White Terrier and one-quarter Bichon Frise).

Maggie and Sebastian romping in the snow

Sebastian keeps asking, “Where’s Mom?”

“She’s gone to the cemetery.”


“Yes. She’s gone to TWO cemeteries!”

“NO!!!!”  “Not TWO.”

“Yes, two cemeteries.”

“No! Mom’s dead?”

“No… she’s gone to the cemeteries.”

“No. You’re pullin’ our tails…she can’t be buried in TWO cemeteries. Only ONE. We’re not stupid.”

“Okay,” I say. “You’re not stupid. You’re both very bright. Mom’s not been taken to the cemetery like you guys will be if you keep peeing on the rugs and on the corner of the new kitchen island …she’s not buried. She’s DRIVING to the cemeteries in the car.”

“DRIVING? In the CAR?”

“Yes…in DAD’S CAR.”

“We’re going for a ride In DAD’s car?”

“No,” I say. “Mom has Dad’s car. She’s gone to the cemeteries…in Lincoln, Nebraska. It’s Memorial Day. Besides, no rides in Dad’s car until you stop peeing in the house.”

“Aw! That’s not fair. We want to go for a ride in the car…right NOW. Like you always say!  ‘Where the ____ is Mom?'”

“Bad dog, you’re not supposed to talk like that. Where’d you learn to talk like that?”

“Mom taught us. We love Mom more than you.”

“I don’t care. She’s not here!  I’m all you’ve got until Mom gets home.”

“Mom’s home?” They run to the door.

“Oh boy, oh boy, Mom’s home! Mom’s home!”

“No. She’s coming home tomorrow. Maybe, when she brings Dad’s car….”

“Dad’s car? Ride in the car?”

“No. You have to listen. When she gets back from the cemeteries, Dad will take you for a ride in the car…OR…if you keep peeing in the house, Mom will take you both for a ride… to the cemetery.

“No, no…not the cemetery!” shouts Maggie.

Sebastian saunters over to the island.

“You’re pullin’ our tails,” he says. “Mom wouldn’t take us to the cemetery.”

He looks right at me and lifts his leg: “You’re mean. Wait ’til Mom gets home!”

Sebastian and Maggie with Momoh Freeman

The Man Who Loved Graves

My great-great-great-grandfather Isaac Andrews founded the Andrews Casket Company and Funeral Home next to the trout stream in Woodstock, Maine more than 250 years ago. Isaac was a minister.Because there was no carpenter in town, he not only stood at the graves. He built pine boxes for those he buried.

Over the course of time, the simple boxes became the caskets of the Andrews Casket Company and Funeral Home. You might say Isaac had a monopoly in those Maine woods.

Only recently did the Andrews property leave the family when Pete Andrews, my late mother’s favorite cousin, sold it to some whippersnapper who just wanted to make a buck.

My mother used to chuckle as she recalled playing hide-and-seek with her siblings in and among the caskets at the casket factory. The land, the mill, the old homestead,the funeral home and the trout stream that had belonged to the family all those years belongs to someone new…which means that it, like Garrison Keillor’s fictional “Lake Woebegone,” never really did belong to us and does not belong to them. It does not belong to time.

Last October my brother Bob and I stood with my cousins at the open grave of my 99 year-old Aunt Gertrude – our one remaining Andrews elders. I recited from The Book of Common Worship the prayer I have prayed a thousand times at the open grave, the one my classmate Steve and I learned as young, naive pastors, a prayer for the living that feeds me day and nigh until the lights go out. I wonder if Isaac Andrews did the same way back when.

“O Lord, support us all the day long until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging and peace at the last.”

Book of Common Worship

Here’s the poem from Steve from a few days ago that inspired the above reflection.

When I was just a young and naive pastor,
an old man in the congregation
would always arrive long before the rest
of the people at the grave site. He’d shun
the funeral, but haunt the cemetery…
Standing by the open grave, he’d state
his opinion of the deceased and share
with me the type, style and brand of casket
he’d told his wife he wanted when he died.
As the morticians say, he “predeceased”
his spouse, and when we met to plan, she tried
to grant his wishes to the very last
She blessed their common gravestone with her tears,
but smiled through life for many happy years.

“The Man Who Loved Graves” – Steve Shoemaker, April 24, 2012

Like the widow of the man who loved graves, I smile through tears for all the years, and I take ancestral solace in knowing that I don’t really “own” a thing.

Gordon C. Stewart, the not-so-great great-great-great grandson of Isaac Andrews