Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"And rest in unvisited tombs"

At the grave of my childless spinster great x3 aunt last fall.
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." -- George Eliot, Middlemarch

I owe the above quote -- and inspiration for this post -- to Brooke, who included it as part of her comment on my recent post about the classic Victorian novel "Middlemarch" by George Eliot and the new book that it inspired Rebecca Mead to write, "My Life in Middlemarch."

Coincidentally, dh & I were visiting Katie's niche at the cemetery this weekend -- as we do most weekends -- and talking about who's going to come to visit us there when we're gone.

Our reluctant but realistic conclusion: nobody. Maybe the nephews once in a very great while, but it's an hour's drive for them, so I doubt they will make the trip very often, if at all.

It's kind of sad to think about. But it's true. And, if you think about it, realistically, how many graves are being visited regularly by relatives 10, 20, 50, 100 years after a person dies (if not for the immediate time afterward)?  (Especially when they don't have any direct descendants -- as will be the case with dh & me.)

Case in point: while dh is happy with our weekly trips to Katie's niche, he rarely visits the grave of his mother, who died more than 30 years ago (before I ever met her).  Part of it is distance -- it's about a half hour drive away, not an area of the city we often visit these days. I also suspect that visiting brings back some painful memories that he still has difficulty dealing with.

As another example, my grandparents are buried in a family plot with my great-grandparents & my grandmother's younger brother. But I -- one of the family genealogists -- had NO IDEA until about 15 years ago that both sets of my grandmother's grandparents -- i.e., my great-great grandparents -- as well as grandma's uncle -- were all buried together in yet another family plot, not far away. My mother & I found this other plot almost by accident. My grandmother had always made a fuss over her parents' graves, cleaning and planting around them on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend, but I don't ever recall her mentioning this other family plot or showing it to us. Go figure.

I know a lot of people -- even the other bereaved parents we know, online & "in real life" -- are surprised that we are still visiting Katie at the cemetery every week, almost 16 years after her stillbirth. The only weeks we've missed have generally been when we're away or when the weather has been really bad.  It's just a habit we've gotten into. The cemetery is a 15-minute drive away, more or less along the way to our usual weekend shopping, dining and movie spots. We'll stop by on our way to dinner &/or a bookstore visit on Saturday night, or en route to a movie on Sunday afternoon. We don't usually stay very long, but we miss it if we don't go.

We've brought other family members to Katie's niche over the years. FIL used to come occasionally by himself, in the beginning, but I don't think he has in many years now. Occasionally, our bereaved parent friends from support group, whose children are buried nearby, will come by to visit, just as we will occasionally stroll over to visit the graves of their children. Once all of us are gone, though....

But sometimes, people do visit.  

I've written before in this blog about my fascination with genealogy.

(As an aside -- I've often noted, and wondered, how it is that so many people who are keen on genealogy have no children themselves. I suppose the smartass answer would be that we're the only ones who have time for such things. I like to think that we're still contributing to the family history and growing the family tree... just in a different way. Most people add branches by sprouting new ones of their own.  People like me go looking for branches that have been lost in the mists of time, and reattach them to add to the fullness of the family picture. I find myself wanting to know more about these people, who they were, what they were like, what their lives were like;  what, if anything, of them, has lived on in me & the family members I know today.)

Last fall, we drove an hour & a bit north to enjoy the spectacular autumn colours and visit the graves of my great x3 grandparents & their daughter -- my grandfather's great-aunt -- the younger sister of my great-great grandmother, or, I suppose you could call her my great x3 aunt. I first visited there 30 years ago with my parents and, since it's really not that far from where we now live, dh & I have gone back several times since then -- often in the fall, when the leaves are at their prettiest. (My great x3 grandparents aren't even listed in the cemetery records as being buried there -- but my great x3 grandfather's newspaper obituary says he was buried there -- and there is enough space and, half buried in the grass, two tiny marble corner plot markers bearing the family name, which tells me they are indeed there.)

My great x3 aunt  -- unmarried & childless -- has been dead almost 65 years. I am willing to bet that my parents, dh & I are the only relatives to have visited her grave in the last 30 years. She's someone who could so easily have been forgotten, fading into the fog of history. And yet, as we (or at least my genealogist cousins & I) have come to realize our family, and our knowledge of our family's history, owes a great, great deal to this woman.

(Perhaps even more amazingly, as we have learned through our research, she was not actually related to us by blood at all, but was taken in as an infant by my great x3 grandparents and raised as one of their own.)(We've even managed to hazard a pretty good guess as to who her birth parents might have been.) 

While my great x2 grandmother and her family moved west in the late 1870s, great aunt x3 stayed on to care for their aging parents. After their deaths, the western branch of the family urged her to join them -- but she chose to stay in the little town where she had spent most of her life. She lovingly saved the letters that my great-great grandparents sent to her and her parents over the years -- letters that would be found after her death, copied and circulated among the extended family, pique my interest in the family history and provide invaluable information and clues for further research. 

She lived to be a very old woman, almost 90 years old, outliving most of the family members who knew and remembered her. She lived by herself, in a simple wooden house with dirt floors (!), supporting herself by weaving rag rugs for the townspeople. It's sad to think that she might have felt forgotten by her family near the end of her life. The letters she had once received from the west dwindled as the generation who knew her passed on;  occasionally, a great-niece or nephew would make a special trip to visit her.

But one of my cousins has a letter written by a neighbour (and sent to my cousin's grandmother), providing the details of great x3 aunt's death. She had reluctantly closed up her little house, moved into a care home for the winter, and became ill.  The neighbour wrote that she had been at great x3 aunt's bedside when she passed. The funeral would be held from the parlour of her own home, and how sad the community was to lose one of its oldest and most respected citizens. The neighbour later wrote a history of the town, crediting great x3 aunt in the introduction for her invaluable assistance. Apparently, the community owes great x3 aunt a great deal too.

I cried when I read that letter.  Great x3 aunt hadn't been alone in the end, but surrounded by neighbours who loved and respected her. 

Did she understand the positive impact her one, quiet life would have on so many people? Did ever imagine that, some 60 years later, her great x3 niece would be standing by her grave? Probably not.

Before dh & I left town to make the drive north that day, I asked him to stop off at the supermarket, so I could pick up a chrysanthemum plant to take and leave at the cemetery. He grumbled, impatient to be on the road -- but as I placed the pot beside the headstone, patted the granite & said, "Thank you, Aunt M.," he gave me a hug. "I'm glad you brought flowers," he said.

Unvisited tombs? You never know.


  1. Oh, that last bit made me a bit teary. What a lovely tribute to your greatx3 aunt. This is a beautiful post, and I love the idea that you are contributing to and growing the family tree, just in another way.

    I visit my father's grave when I travel south, but that's only a couple of times a year. Close to his grave is the children's section - I always think of you there. I'm glad you still get comfort visiting Katie. I'm not really a grave visitor, though, s so it doesn't really bother me to think that no-one will visit my grave. I don't know if I'll even have one. Though I've always said I like the idea of random visitors walking past, and wondering who I was, what kind of person I was and what I did with my life, in the way I do when I am in a cemetery. (I actually love cemeteries for that reason). There's an old cemetery full of the first settlers of Wellington that was close to my first place of work when I moved here. People would often take their lunches and eat them in the cemetery. I love this - that some day someone could be sitting next to my gravestone, enjoying the sun and a sandwich, and glance at my name and think about me. Not that I will be buried anywhere close to where office workers eat lunch. Sigh. Still, I like the idea.

  2. @Mali: Thank you for thinking of Katie. :) I've always loved cemeteries too. When dh & I were first married, our apartment backed onto one of Toronto's oldest & largest cemeteries. It's like a park in there, we would take long walks through there & people cycle & rollerblade through. It's gorgeous, especially in the fall. The only cemetery I have ever felt remotely creeped out in was one behind our hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia... it was the city's original cemetery, with old weathered stones, some engraved with skulls, dating back to the 1700s. Even then, it was fascinating.

    I've don't mind the idea of cremation, but I don't like the idea of my ashes being scattered to the wind. I want to be somewhere with a marker so that people can find me & visit me, if they want. Dh & I have bought a niche that fits two urns not far from Katie's... the one next to hers was already purchased by the time we could afford to buy one. The cemetery salesperson suggested we buy two niches, move Katie & resell hers, but I didn't want to do that. It's close enough.

  3. I love this post. I am someone who visits graves only rarely. When someone dies, my cousin will link her arm through mine after the funeral and say, "let's go visiting." And we'll stop along at all the family plots in this one cemetery.

    I tend to go and visit places that remind me of the person, whether they were alive and I saw them in that spot, I was told the spot was important to them, or the spot was a place I associate with the person (as is the case with some of my miscarriages -- there is no grave, but there are physical locations that remind me of things).

  4. I think it's so touching that your great aunt holds a special place in your heart. Getting settled into a childless life has definitely made me wonder who will be there for/with us in our old age and then when we die....Will we be remembered? Will our nephews and niece remember us? Will we be an insignificant memory? These concerns are definitely an unexpected occurence of a childless life after infertility.

  5. Your post has made me realize how long it's been since I've visited graves of my loved ones.

    I once told my children that I wanted to be cremated, in part so that they wouldn't have to go anywhere to visit me (a little place over the fireplace will be fine).

    They freaked. Newbie mistake.

    I'm glad you were able to get a space near Katie.

  6. I know this is an older post so I hope you get this comment. This is such a beautiful post! I also do genealogy. I didn't start until my paternal grandfather had passed and oh, my, that is my brick wall. Grandpop always said if you find someone with the same spelling of our last name, we are related. But as I kid, I never questioned why!

    When my maternal grandparents were living, on my annual vacation to visit, we would visit all the cemeteries in MD. My grandfather loved it, some he had never even known about. He was thrilled to meet ancestors that have almost their own private little cemetery surrounded by trees in PA.Since there are so few graves, I'm sure we probably connect on one way or another. Driving by, you wouldn't even know the graves are there.

    I would always go buy a bunch of artificial flowers and put on the relatives throughout the different cemeteries. I'm sure they had not been visited in years and I wanted them to know I found them and cared!

  7. This is a wonderful post and proves that being childless does not automatically mean that you will be forgotten. People impact the world in many ways and it sounds like your great x3 aunt certainly made positive contributions and relationships. And it sounds like you are doing the same. I'm so glad you put flowers on her grave, and thank you so much for sharing this story with us!