Thursday, December 29, 2011

Visiting ancestors...

 After residing in the Republic of South Africa for two years while working with Peace Corps, one of the first things I did to ready myself for “reentry” in June of 2011,  was to sign up for a meditation class.  I  knew I would be disoriented with my homecoming and wanted a strategy in place to root myself spiritually while the new pieces of my life fell together around me.  It was a good move—to sign up for the class.  After ten weekly sessions to establish a daily practice in the technique of insight meditation, I do indeed, find myself rooted and centered in my new life.  While I was excited about the class and looked forward to the weekly meetings, what has mattered most, not surprisingly, was--and is-- the daily practice that I’ve learned and established.
I just finished the last session of my meditation class and am surprised at my new designation: “experienced meditator.”  Although I have meditated, in one form or another, for a great deal of my adult life, I’ve never before considered myself an “experienced meditator.”  I’ve signed up for the next  in the series of the meditation class and am more than a bit relieved to see it titled, “Continuing Meditation: Insight  Meditation for Experienced Students.”  Whew!  I thought I might be considered advanced or something!  In any case, I’m grateful I had the urge to put this important piece in my life when I came home; I’m grateful to have taken the class  and feel my life transforming.

One unexpected perk of my weekly class is an extended stroll through a cemetery.  Although I originally passed through the cemetery on my way to meditation class as a shortcut, I quickly realized that the shortcut had actually extended my meditation sessions considerably: walking amidst my ancestors is a meditation all in its own!

I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries as walking among bones of previous generations offers a perspective on life as nothing else can.  To do so certainly brings me face to face with my mortality.  I also feel comforted by the quiet of the silence found in cemeteries and the beauty of walking among the trees and green grass.  I often marvel at the beauty of cemeteries and am happy that these places of honor feel like a park or a walk in the woods. 

What I find most poignant, however, when visiting cemeteries, is realizing, as I’m walking among them, that generations of families are often buried together.  I find this profoundly moving: to see marks on a stone noting the timeline of the lives of a husband and wife sharing their lives together.  Very often, their children and their children’s children are buried nearby and the family dots are easily connected.  I can’t help but imagine their lives and how they must have been:  all the meals prepared and shared; all the mornings of getting ready for school; all of the lawn work and household chores; all of the birthdays and holiday celebrations…  I love how these families have remained together in life, and now, even in death.

I imagine lives too, of generations of  families that have lived a long time ago: of people who died in the early nineteenth century.  Their lives were certainly different from mine: Did they cook their meals and warm their homes with wood or coal fires?  Did the women wear the long dresses and bonnets and fancy, button-up shoes?  Were their children rosy and robust from living lives with plenty of time outside and in fresh air?  And their funerals and burials?  How were these different or the same from ours?

I  am often moved when I come  across a family actually making a gravesite visit. On particular instance stands out: a young family of a wife, a husband, and a few small children dumped out of a car with balloons and flowers.  It was obvious this visitation was a familiar habit of the family as the kids dashed off and left their parents strolling along behind in their wake. I was struck by the calmness of the scene, of the feeling of togetherness and of gratitude.  Of course I am speculating and projecting my hopes and values onto that family who may have been experiencing something completely different.  But seeing them together that day, united as a family to honor members of their deceased family, filled my heart with warmth.

For some reason, what I find most moving, however, is finding evidence of a recent visit by family members. Family members often leave behind objects at the gravesite, seemingly as “gifts” to the deceased ancestor.  These types of leavings are often some type of floral arrangement, either  a living plant, cut flowers,  or artificial arrangements.  However, evidence of family visits can take other forms.  For example, I passed through one morning, the first Wednesday after the Thanksgiving holiday.  My eyes filled with tears at seeing the cornucopias, the pumpkins and gourds, orange and brown and other autumn-colored ribbons, and Mylar balloons with cheery, smiling Thanksgiving turkeys waving on them.  One family had even left a scarecrow!  These family members left gifts and tributes for passed relatives during holiday times.  In this way, the family had “given thanks” by honoring their family ancestors.

The other day I noticed a sign that caught my eye: the special marking was something about “the innocents.”  While  walking among the monuments, it didn’t take long to realize that I was moving through a special section reserved for infants and very young children.  Many of the markers had references of lambs. It was poignant to see how small the grave spaces were; these small grave spaces gave me a picture of the tiny little bodies buried below.  My heart felt a bit more tender walking along here and imagined the pain parents must feel at losing such a  young life.

A burial ground in my village in South Africa.

All this to say, is that I’m profoundly moved by visits to cemeteries.  In a way, I find nothing more loving about the family unit than seeing evidence of lives lived together and lives being honored by the next generations.

While serving Peace Corps, I was visiting a cemetery in my rural village in South Africa when I had my “Ah, ha!” moment of, “It’s time to go home.”  I was having the hardest time trying to make up my mind about extending my tour of duty with Peace Corps: Did I want to return to my home and family in the USA and build a new life?  Or did I want to stay in South Africa with Peace Corps another year, and perhaps find other life-experience opportunities living abroad?

Most of you who know me understand that I had a challenging time while living in Africa.  I particular suffered with feelings of homesickness and longing for my family.  Although I was making ties with my “new family” in Africa, I never felt like I truly fit in with the culture of my people. 

One hot clear day, near the end of my service commitment, I had taken a walk with my African dog to a village cemetery.  Because the people of my village usually buried their dead on Saturday mornings, the cemeteries, at other times, were often empty and deserted. I would often retreat to these holy grounds for quiet time and reflection.  This day was no exception: I was alone with the sky and my dog and was strolling along the graves and contemplating the lives of the people underground.  I could see evidence of generations of families: living together, going to school together, going to church together, finding jobs and working together, getting married together, having babies together, and raising children together.  I could clearly see how the cycles of generations spiraled on and on, cycling through with the same blood and the same strains of DNA.  And then, as clear as a bell, on this day,  I had a very loud and crystal-clear thought: Karen, these are not your people.  This is not your land.  You are a stranger here.  You need to go  home.”  At that moment, I knew I would be returning to my home,  my family, and my life  in the States instead of extending my stay in Africa.

I do seek out these places of solitude and feel grateful to feel connected to my ancestors.  Perhaps some of  my greatest moments of meditation have come from my time strolling in cemeteries.  I love the solitude and the reverence of such holy ground and love feeling close to people who have gone before me. I feel comfort too, at knowing that at some point for me too, the roots of trees will be growing through me, and perhaps my body will nourish some kind of growing thing.  Too, perhaps someone  walking above me might stroll along, look down upon my monument, and wonder about my life.

Am so glad to be home,


  1. Marvelous Karen! Welcome back to writing it out!

  2. I enjoy cemeteries, too, but could not have expressed that fact as eloquently as you have done in words and pictures. Thanks for making me sit still this busy Friday afternoon and feel my roots. I'm glad you're home, too!

  3. I've had a special fondness for cemeteries too, but for different reasons. I always found it fascinating and kind of funny how people especially revered the bodies of the dead, because the essence of the person, the spirit, moves outside the host when it expires. But of course, as I get older, I understand it's less about the body and more about a marker to respect and remember the person who was once a physical part of our lives. Also, I've not yet experienced the death of someone who was very close, so cemeteries are like foreign places. Love your thoughtful postings