There are many impressive gated communities in my well-to-do hometown. Most of my family members are fortunate to call one home, though due more to stubbornness than money. Planting ourselves somewhere before it becomes popular is as much a family trait as the Oglesby nose and a tendency towards nearsightedness.
The community where my family owns property is typical in many ways, with decorative iron fencing and carefully tended landscaping. After the well-lit entrance, you’ll find my aunt and uncle to the left, with a fabulous lake view the rest of us covet (minus the hungry ducks that chase you for breadcrumbs). My cousin is a nearby neighbor, and there are great-aunts and -uncles on the other side of the hill. Around the curve to the right, under some dangerously tall pines, you’ll find another cluster of aunts and one lone uncle. My dad’s place is on that street, too.
Drive toward the middle of the complex and you’ll find my grandmother and grandfather, whose yard features some bright pink azaleas and a graceful dogwood. Then, in the oldest part of the development, near the back gate, you’ll see my greats: grandmothers and grandfathers, two sets.
It sounds as if I have a large family, and perhaps that remains true, even though no one I’ve listed is alive. They are still my family after all, though their gated community is Arlington Cemetery, an address few embrace eagerly.
You may wonder, Who thinks well of a cemetery? Why dwell on a place most hope, ineffectually, to avoid forever? But when loved one after loved one headed there, Arlington somehow became a more compelling locale to me. Once the overwhelming tide of initial grief passed, however many days/months/years/decades that took, having a pretty place to go and think about them became a comfort. The departed cease to own houses, clothes, cars, and whatever whatnots are divvied up after the wills are read. But their grave is forever theirs, where their names are not only unforgotten, but proclaimed in stone or bronze. And there are few rules to follow on a cemetery visit. Yelling, sobbing, even laughter is welcome there; you’ll not find a less judgmental place.
Yelling, sobbing, even laughter is welcome there; you’ll not find a less judgmental place.
I suppose it helps to have been on the planning side of more than one funeral. At an impressionable age, I looked at liners and voted on caskets and walked the numbered plots. My mother grew up with the local funeral director, so I’ve been on a first name basis with Morris for what feels like forever. Heaven remains mysterious, but this side of death is a comfortable friend I’ve called on more times than I can count.
I’ve inherited a tradition from my mom where, following a funeral for a close relative, we return to Arlington after everyone has left the gravesite. With scissors, pruning shears, or sometimes just bare hands, we “harvest” some of the prettiest flowers from the funeral arrangements. We take them home and arrange them in bouquets of all sizes, filling every handy vase and jar.
This is just the beginning of the work, though. Cut flowers don’t have long shelf lives, so multiple vases spread throughout the house require a vigilant refreshing of water and trimming of stems. One blossom may wilt, necessitating removal and rearranging. Then comes the moment when, as my dad used to say, “we’ve gotten all the goody” out of them—time for the trash.
No wonder the pruning metaphors in Scripture resonate with me so strongly. Spiritual growth is a process that requires careful tending, much like a delicate bouquet. And spiritual gifts are beautiful in their expression, speaking to the world of a divine Creator who planted us and granted us the capacity to bloom in the first place. When we walk in close communion with God, He provides good earth, sun, shade, and rain in necessary proportions, and a firm trim to recalcitrant branches. Our earthly lives are short, but He helps us wring all possible good from them, and maintains that our dread of the end, while natural, is unnecessary. He graciously repeats in His Word, over and over, the antidote to fear: His constant loving presence.
Our earthly lives are short, but God helps us wring all possible good from them.
In the midst of grief, you might argue that preserving floral arrangements is a needless waste of time. But I often welcomed something to focus on for a few minutes each day when the sad calls and talks and thoughts are too tiresome to bear. With the end of the flowers comes the long, painful process of learning to live without the everyday presence of the one you loved. When they believe in Christ, it’s a relief to know where their spirits and souls are, and to know that one day there will be a joyous family reunion. Yet there are so many unanswered questions about what heaven will be like. And the sure thought it will be far more wondrous than even the most creative of my imaginings.
Until then, there are hungry ducks, dangerously tall pines, and graceful dogwoods near where earthly bodies rest. And we are free to visit our loved ones after a fashion, until the gates close.
Illustration by Rose Wong