In Tom Brokaw’s book, A Long Way from Home, a reference to the grave marker at Wounded Knee, South Dakota made me think of cemeteries that I have visited. The six-foot high stone at Wounded Knee where the last holdouts of the Dakota nation were massacred displays the names of some prominent Indians. Chief Big Foot, High Hawk, Black Coyote and Young Afraid of Bear are the expected mentions, but there is also a single chilling inscription “Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here.”
On a sunny afternoon in Belgium, I stood before white gravestones that reeled out to cover several acres. These markers commemorated Canadian soldiers who had died in World War I. It was difficult to reconcile this pleasant spring day with the message on the simple cruciform stones, “A Canadian solder, Known only to God.”
I turn to another cemetery in Key West, Florida. This burial place, with its white above-ground vault, almost resembles a village of tiny houses. That cemetery is sadly filling with the young victims of Aids, but in the same funeral ground, there is a stone whimsically inscribed, “I told you I was sick.”
Sometimes, as in the cemetery for the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, a gravestone tells the life story of the people buried there. How interesting and meaningful, as in the case of the Brubacher pioneers, is a short essay carved on the marker’s reverse that tells the life story of the couple, including where they farmed, after their Pennsylvania trek. Their saga is told straight-forwardly, without superlatives, as is the Mennonite way.
There is a totally different style of cemetery at Kelmscot, England. This country graveyard, wrapped around a small pretty stone church, is quietly decorative. The great English designer, William Morris, is buried here and he would, I’m sure, be pleased with the patina that time has rested upon that place. I was sufficiently taken with the look of this graveyard that I did a painting of it.