Last weekend, I was reminded of the different ways we celebrate the lives of those who leave this world before us, how sadness and joy are intertwined and just how cool one man’s tombstone can be.
On Sunday I stood in a family cemetery high on a mountaintop for Decoration Day. For those who don’t know what that is, I will defer to Wikipedia, which defers to the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, which describes it as “an occasion on which a family or church congregation gathers on a Sunday to place flowers on the graves of loved ones and to hold a memorial service for them. Traditionally this involved singing and dinner on the ground as well as a religious service.”
The family in the mountaintop cemetery was not mine by blood. I was a guest but I was more than willing to sing, bow my head and eat when the time came. In a slight departure from tradition, some family members had replaced chicken on the ground with a late brunch back at the inn and restaurant off the parkway, but I wasn’t picking up the check so that was fine with me.
Getting to the cemetery meant traversing a one-lane gravel road that was fairly well maintained as one-lane gravel roads go. There had been a shorter route, I was told, but some folks from Florida bought property up on the mountain, claimed the shortcut for their own and angrily shook their fists at shortcut-takers each Decoration Day until the shortcut was abandoned on the fear that someone (most likely folks from Florida) might get shot if the ill will continued.
At the top, Brother Frank delivered the message and it was good one, focusing on sweet memories of those whose spirits had been set free. It was thankfully devoid of hellfire and brimstone, which tends to make me squirm because I can almost feel the heat on the back of my neck.
The a cappella hymns floated into the trees among the butterflies and birds and it was beautiful.
A day before, the music had not been a cappella hymns but Rolling Stones tunes as a hundred or so coworkers, family and friends gathered at the community building in town for a Saturday memorial service. Rush Blanton, my pal for close to 40 years, had died at home days earlier. Health-related issues took him and left those who loved him devastated.
Rush worked hard, played hard and wore out before he should have. Everyone there had a Rush story and only some of them could be told in polite company. He was intense, hilarious, big-hearted, competitive, most often hungry and sometimes just bat-s**t crazy. My kind of people.
I was thinking about him that next day while I walked around the cemetery, looking at the markers, waiting on Brother Frank to kick into gear.
There lay beloved fathers, devoted mothers and some little ones who sadly never got the chance to be either. That’s the nature of cemeteries.
One tombstone in particular caught my eye. It was for a fellow named Robert. He didn’t have a long life, just a couple of years older than Rush when he passed. But it was clear how he liked to spend what time he did have on this Earth.
Carved into the granite was a depiction of someone – I’m betting Robert – fly-fishing for trout in a river surrounded by tall trees. It was the coolest tombstone I’d ever seen for a person who was not named Hank Williams. It made me wish I had known Robert so he could tell me about the ones that got away and the ones that didn’t. Robert’s granite marker filled me with both sadness and joy on that mountaintop.
Wherever Robert and Rush are, I hope there are tall trees, fish to fight, Stones tunes, golf courses and endless bacon at the breakfast buffet.
As Brother Frank might say, amen.
***Editors: If used online, here is a link to Decoration Day explained***