Speak Your Piece: Where the Dead Are Not Past
In this rural Iowa community, a family graveyard helps the past and its people enliven the present.
These days “Midwestern Fatalism” is part catchphrase, part Internet meme, and part rural stereotype. Among the bon vivants and good-timers living elsewhere, fatalism has come to signify a certain déclassé, sky-is-falling worldview. But I would argue our particular mentality suits us fine. Here in the nation’s Heartland, we’re neighborly with the dead all our days, not just on days when we’re told.
My family’s own pioneer cemetery stands directly across the gravel road from our timberland and just down the road from our Heritage Farm. Growing up, no trip into Dave and Gary’s Grocery, or any other in-town errand for that matter, could be made without driving by our old familiar: Union/Clear Creek Cemetery, circa 1842. Some days it seemed, merely by the gravity of our predetermined route past the boneyard, that the dead had conspired to link phalanges and metatarsals and block all other exit routes. Indeed, the old-fashioned Yankee-sounding names chiseled on the tombstones we passed—Sally, Levi, Franklin, Conrad, and the rest—had to be reckoned with; they haunted our dance cards and guest lists.
As a general rule cemeteries occupy the Urban Mind powerfully just once per year, on Memorial Day, as calendar and commerce dictate. For my farm family, however, the graveyard amounts to a kind of annex, a neighborhood “living room.” In the small meadow beside the Civil War-era gravestones, we have wept and picnicked as well as cursed and laughed, finding sadness and solace here not for one day, but for all days. At various times my cousins and my uncle held the prized contract to keep our pioneer cemetery mowed. Trimming around our ancestors’ tombstones earned them some extra income for their troubles, but it also brought them face to face with their long-gone kin, as well as to their knees in a posture ideal for both weeding and penitence.
My grandfather and my father, meanwhile, worked here for free—cutting back poison sumac in the dog days of July and otherwise grooming the place within an inch of its life—not just for our ancestors but for our neighbor s, too. As a teenager I could sometimes be convinced to join them, rubbing sleep from my eyes as I chiseled an ever larger chip on my shoulder, thinking about how unfair it was that we donated our labor for free, risking life and limb with balky chainsaws for a cemetery where fully half of the graves had been abandoned a half-century before I took my first breath. At the time it seemed a shameful waste—evidence of my family’s predilection for devoting its time and treasure to lost causes and sinking ships—fatalism almost by definition.
Now I see things differently. I see our pioneer cemetery as a rural “third place”—Ray Oldenburg’s term for the necessary, free-admission spaces in our lives that lie beyond work and home. I see our toil among the tombstones as a version of what folks in the Progressive Era called “municipal housekeeping.” To a Post Modern, such a term sounds positively antiquated, I’m sure, but the notion that our “house” also includes space to which we have no legal claim, but to which we nevertheless owe a debt of responsibility and fidelity, could not be more current. The pioneer cemetery functions for us as a house of memory—a setting no less important in our lives and the lives of our neighbors than to the characters in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
I remember burying my grandfather here just two days before my 29th birthday, and laying my uncle to rest after a sudden heart attack took him in middle age. I recall planting my grandmother in her chosen spot beneath the good Midwestern loam, then returning to work alongside my father in the weeks and months after to regrow the grass over Gran’s grave, listening to forebodings of his own death while our mutual sweat and tears mingled in the dirt. If I didn’t see to it that he was planted here beside his mother and father in a simple pine box, he would personally haunt me, he pledged. And he meant it.
Two short years later I spent whole afternoons filling the holes I’d made sinking his heavy limestone memorial deep into the ground—I recall my second cousin Joe, trustee to this small collection of Union and farm dead, arriving unexpectedly one afternoon to help. Shovel in hand he implored me not to feel as if I had to plant my roots here, not to get myself “locked into” the family pattern my father had, following familial obligation to the grave.
We “Middle Americans” are poked fun of for our Debbie Downerisms and Chicken Little worldview, but to lay one’s head and one’s hat a quarter mile down the road from where your ancestors sleep each night is a point of pride. To put one’s world right requires that one dream the dream of the living and the dead in some simultaneity, walking between them—life and death—as between two friends down a twilit gravel road. In the minds of Coastal sophisticates, rural fatalists like me have one foot in the grave already. But the way I see it, honoring the dead helps remind me to value my time among the living. When it’s all said and done, a nation that understands its dying alongside its living, that honors its past and passing, is the only nation, in the end, worthy of the eternal.
Zachary Michael Jack is the seventh generation in his family to make his home on an eastern Iowa farm. He is the author, most recently, of The Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: In Search of an American Icon. He teaches courses in place studies and writing at North Central College.