I park the van at the top of Section C, and my daughter and I get out into the rain. The spongy ground slopes away from us to the road below, speckled with headstones that are, in turn, speckled with lichen. Already my daughter bends over one, wipes the drizzling rain off its surface, and reads a name aloud.
About this cemetery hangs a pleasant sense of disorder. Stones shaped like benches, pillars, or pensive children kneel in the grass, half-sunken where the ground beneath them has settled; moss laps at their edges. Certain monuments here are notorious, like the massive stone angel who has, with her attendant urban legends, nearly eclipsed the family she was meant to memorialize. Broken stones lean in pieces against cottonwood trees whose burly roots slowly shoulder the soil away.
Unlike another local cemetery, which styles itself as a “memorial park” and offers natural burial as well as farewell tributes, death is still a presence here, not an unpleasant thought to be sponged away with rebranding. I feel comfortable saying “tombstone” here, or “grave.” As in, “Look at this grave!”—which I call to my daughter when I find one carved to resemble a scroll draped over a log and slicked with real moisture, real moss. She is at my side in a moment and together we puzzle out the inscription.
It is beautiful, but it is not his.
We have come looking for the grave of a man we never knew and are not related to. He enlisted in the military in June of 1917 and drowned a month later while swimming in the bay. He and his wife lived in our house that year, and we discovered his story while my daughter researched the history of our house for a school project. We thought finding his headstone might help us learn more about him or his family, but coming here was more of a pilgrimage, I think. Finding some physical mark that he was here, that he was more than a newspaper clipping on a screen, more than a typewritten name in a city directory—I think that is what we are really after. We want to see his name in stone, but when we reach Section C, Lot 50, Grave 8-A, where the cemetery’s website assures us he was buried, there is no stone.
But there is an old tree, arcing an arthritic branch over the lot with startling grace, and a single rose-colored headstone for a woman who shared his last name and who, if she was his mother (the dates and the nearness of her grave suggest she may have been), would have outlived her son by forty years. We kneel and read her inscription, and I cannot help but place my hand on the stone as though in consolation. So, we find her stone. But not his.
My daughter snaps a picture of the spot, that one branch slick and dark with rain, the ground beneath it nearly empty—for other stones are missing, not just his. My daughter photographs the rose-colored stone, too. Then we begin the climb uphill.
We came prepared to get wet; we are wet; my feet, in their rubber boots, are leaden with cold. I think maybe my daughter will be disappointed, and she is, but only a little, for somehow finding even that plot was enough. She chatters on about finding his possible-mom, how great that was, and wonders what happened to his stone. I don’t know, I say. We should look up what happens to headstones, where they go. And I think, we know where to find him now, and we are perhaps the only living people in town now who do. That’s something.
Finding some physical mark that he was here, that he was more than a newspaper clipping on a screen, more than a typewritten name in a city directory—I think that is what we are really after.Théa Rosenburg
Despite the cold, we are not ready to leave. We linger over the graves on the way back up the hill, reading epitaphs. Bits of poems or hymns, or the simply eloquent “Mother” or “Father”—which is to say, “I mattered to someone, I was loved.” Every so often, we see a carved lamb resting atop a small white stone, and the lamb says the same thing but in a heavier, more heartbroken key. We pause by a monument for fallen miners, inscribed with the work of a local poet, which my daughter reads aloud. At one headstone we pause: I am the Resurrection and the Life, it reads, golden moss embossing the letters, and I smile at my daughter. “Maybe we’ll meet him one day,” I say.
If we are only bones and breath, nothing more than a mind tuned for survival, then death means nothing. For a time, those who loved us will mourn—they will miss us, perhaps with a ferocity that wakes them weeping. But they too will die and generations will seep away. Moss will fur our headstone and the ground above us will buckle and shift as we dissolve. Saplings will blossom into great old trees whose roots will nudge our headstones aside. Our names may remain for a time—letters on an old bill of sale or a marriage license—but eventually even those will fade.
We will return to the dust. And if all we are is flesh, then when that flesh is gone we will be nothing.
If that is true, this man is nothing. An unmarked grave, over a hundred years old—a story snapped shut before it finished. But I don’t think that’s true. We may wither and fade like the flowers; our days may be fleeting as the grass. But the Lord never forgets a story—not a soldier falls without him knowing. By some small series of events, my daughter and I get to tell this man’s story, incomplete as our knowledge of it is: a young man enlisted in the army during the Great War. One month later he drowned swimming in the sea. He lived in our house and left behind a wife, who packed her things and moved out by the end of the year.
His name was Reuben.