One Sign of a Life Well-Lived

Every so often a car swept by the graveyard, and I wondered why they didn’t stop and join us. It felt like everyone should be there with us, remembering. The sky was blue and we walked back through the headstones. There, my grandfather’s grave. There, my cousin who died at 18 months of age.

One of my cousin’s kids, a small boy with white-blond hair and fresh skin, toddled around the gravestones. He would stop, bend awkwardly at the knees and study the flowers left by recent mourners. He was fascinated by the American flags that quivered in the breeze.

Then he meandered over to the large pile of dirt just behind my grandmother’s grave site. He considered climbing it, then decided against it, and off he went through the green grass, moving slowly over so many buried stories.

They lowered my grandmother’s casket into the ground, and my aunt surprised us by saying that she wanted to bury Grandma in the Amish tradition, with family members shoveling the dirt back into the grave by hand. So my cousins and I stepped forward, each of us grabbing a shovel. At first the crowd was quiet, and I could hear the chunks of dirt falling into the hole. But as we progressed, something changed.

The crowd that was my family loosened up. They started to talk and laugh. Those of us digging broke into a sweat and, chuckling, asked for someone to take our place. The children joined in the process, adding their own feeble attempts, dumping tiny amounts of dirt into the hole.

And the dirt was a muddy clay that stuck to my boots, made my feet feel heavy. It was messy. And it was beautiful.

* * * * *

Ours is a culture obsessed with sanitizing life, and not just in the physical or chemical sense. We want everything to line up with some unattainable standard, devoid of messiness or intrusion. Funeral services are to remain silent. Learning should be on point. Churches present their Statements of Faith as things which should not even be discussed. Children are expected to behave like robots.

Can we become brave enough to leave room for some mess? Can we care less about modern sensitivities and more about meaning? Can we come to appreciate life in all of its unsanitized beauty?

* * * * *

Later, when the grave was filled, all nearly-100-of-us walked back to the church. We took off our shoes and left them outside, went in and ate lunch. Our voices grew louder and louder, the collective effort of people trying to be heard. 31 great-grandchildren finished eating quickly, raided the dessert table, then turned the hall into a race track.

When I left with Maile and the kids, I marveled at all of those shoes lined up outside the church. Their tangled laces and muddy soles were a testament to the woman we had come to mourn and celebrate.

Life = mess.

5 Replies to “One Sign of a Life Well-Lived”

  1. Again – so beautiful and what a wonderful perspective on life and death. Sanitizing everything is just not helpful. And yes, I was that woman giggling at the funeral this summer when the pastor shared a funny story, because well, it was funny, but I was the only one giggling b/c we were in a church for goodness sake. Shush!

    This heap of family and messy boots and laughter is a precious testament to your grandmother. Thank-you for sharing.

  2. Thanks to you the plans I had to get after my kids to clean up their room for the millionth time this afternoon has been replaced… we will instead paint at the kitchen table… and maybe play puppets… and see how wonderfully messy we can make our lives.

  3. Beautiful Shawn. Thank you so much for sharing this family time with us. I love the mess of life and that it isn’t sanitized and shouldn’t be watered down or prettied up to be acceptable. At my grandfather’s grave this past winter we too, shoveled the dirt onto his casket. I had never done that before and there was definitely a liberty in that. I can’t even really describe it. My grandfather was a cowboy inside and out and returning him to the dirt in this hard work-ethic kind of way was just so…..him.

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