Three years after I’d watched the red kite circling above the graveyard, I once more stood at my father’s graveside in the quiet country churchyard. No sound, just a warm breeze on my face and white clouds moving silently in the blue September sky. The grey headstone was stained and the three years since I’d last remarked on it could have been ten. No gilding to the letters on the plain dull grey stone, worn by the rain, wind and ice in colder months, meant close examination was required to discover whose bones lay interred there.
I wondered about the kite. Whether it still hunted in these green fields with their cultivated woodland, dykes and bubbling streams? Or whether he’d been displaced by the increasing presence of buzzards, whose plaintive crying from one bird to its mate could be heard clearly as they circled high, one above another, till almost out of sight.
“We want plain stone, we don’t want to spoil the churchyard with gilding or marble,” my mother had said. “That’s what your sister wants, and she’s organising it.” Yet all around, amongst the ancient tumbled stones, were little enclaves of modern ones. Yes, perhaps brightly gilded, and marble too but at least you could see where your loved one was buried, and what was wrong with that?
But things had changed. I took a few paces behind and to the side of my father’s grave to a new grave. One that was invisible, grown over with grass and weeds, even with a large lump of orange foam that had somehow become impressed in the earth. I dug out the foam, flinging it into a neighbouring bed of nettles, then cleared a space around a small black plastic plaque. A name and ‘Aged 60 years. At rest.’
I stood back and remembered the funeral. Again, led by a lady vicar, but this time unfamiliar. She’d pronounced that if we, those of us standing at the graveside, presumably, believed in Jesus Christ and God, then we’d have eternal life, a licence to go to heaven. Otherwise, ergo, non-partisans of the faith wouldn’t.
My sister had become ill two years earlier, though the grim truth was kept from me for months. Motor neurone disease. Robbed of her independence, then mobility, then finally her dignity as she sat in a wheelchair, unable to move, with an oxygen mask over her face, watching TV endlessly.
She wouldn’t see me during her illness, just once, briefly. She didn’t want to talk, so I spent most of the visit sitting outside talking to my mother, who I’d been estranged from for nine months. There were pots and containers full of colourful flowers everywhere, but my sister could only view them through the window, her wheelchair couldn’t – for some reason – go outside.
“She’s having a stair lift installed next week,” said my mother. Later I learned that she was never well enough to use it.
And then there was the funeral. So many unfamiliar faces, many with tear-streaked cheeks and red eyes. Who were they, I wondered? I’d stood at the grave with her children, now grown up and distraught, as we took the soil and dropped it in, just as I’d done for my father, ten years before, a few feet away.
The after-funeral festivities were, for some odd reason, held twenty miles away, so few locals could attend. My sister had lived just two miles from the church.
Strange that nine months later, the only sign of her was that little bit of black plastic, with all that she’d achieved in life. I hoped that someone, somewhere was organising a proper tombstone and that the grave would be cleared and made respectable.
I fetched a small but heavy memorial block from my car and stood it at the head of the overgrown patch. Then some red roses, which I cut and arranged in the silver aluminium holder. I stood and looked, occupied in thought, knowing that our souls are eternal whether we believe in Jesus or not, and wondered if her spirit was watching me. The stone said, ‘In Loving Memory.’ Though plain and simple, I hoped it had brought some reconciliation.
Related post: Scene in a Lincolnshire Churchyard
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