A Wonderful Day at the Cemetery

By Liz Pardue-Schultz

After three weeks of hearing her beg, I finally took my 5-year-old daughter to a graveyard. Please note that this was not in apropos to Halloween, we had not recently known anyone who passed away, nor had death or burial come up in any sort of conversation around her. Chloe simply wanted to go after passing one every day on her way to school. Admittedly, it sounds awfully macabre from the outset, and my knee-jerk reaction was to be worried. I immediately assumed I should keep the experience to myself at the risk of terrifying her playmates’ mothers – what kind of parent wants their child playing with the world’s only “Goth” preschooler?

However, the more I thought about it, I realized that, to a young mind, this was just something else to explore. And so, for our first excursion, I decided to take her to an old cemetery in a small riverside town that features headstones dating back to the 1850s.

On our way, she couldn’t contain her excitement, asking an endless stream of questions as we pulled up to the tiny white church.

“How many graves will there be?”

“Do we know anybody here?”

“Will we see a skeleton?”

“What does a ghost look like?”

Needless to say, she practically burst out of the car.

Centuries-old oaks dangled Spanish moss overhead, and the quiet sound of water passing on the Waccamaw River quickly swept away the chaos of modern society. We rounded the front of the church and opened a wrought-iron gate that seemed to transport us into another realm, where the dead rested peacefully in the shade, away from the bold Southern sun.

With bright, wide eyes, Chloe ran to a headstone and pointed, “What does it say, Mama?”

Hesitating, I explained that the tombstone told the name of the deceased and the dates he was born and died. She asked how old he had been.

“This boy was seven years old when he passed away.” I felt myself cringing despite myself.

She scrunched her face, “That’s silly, Mommy.”

Breathing deeply, I realized there was no turning back, “Well, honey, back when these people were alive, they didn’t have doctors who were as good as ours, so if they got sick, they didn’t always get better.”

She thought for a minute before speaking; then she pointed to the gravestone next to the boy’s and asked, “Whose grave is that?”

“It was his mother’s.”

She smiled, “That’s happy. This family gets to be together forever.”

 We spent the next hour going around to each of the headstones and reading about the people buried below us. Objectively, I explained that there were only bodies in the ground; our spirits leave us when we pass away. I explained family plots and what the Confederate flags on some of the tombstones commemorated. With piqued interest, she took in everything I said before bounding over to show me unique statues and carvings, exclaiming that she “didn’t know dead people liked art, too!”

After we’d seen everything in the small burial ground, I spent a few moments wandering through the garden, trying to make out the engravings that had slowly been worn away over time. Suddenly, I looked up with a panic, realizing that Chloe was being unusually quiet. I called her name and was running toward the front gate when I saw her placing bright fuchsia camellias in front of headstones.

“Honey, what are you doing?”

“You said people put flowers on graves to tell them we love them. But these graves don’t have any flowers,” she said as she walked back to the tree where the ripe blooms lay scattered on the ground.

I agreed to help and gathered a few dozen to carry in my skirt for her to distribute.

After we were finished, she paused for a moment and declared, “Mommy, graveyards are sweet places; you get to remember people you love, and they sleep in a garden.”

My eyes filled with tears and I gasped, realizing how right her simple observation was. It took the candid opinion of a preschooler to show me that somehow we’ve allowed a serene gesture to become tarnished with connotations of demons and ghouls; of course cemeteries are a beautiful tradition. Why on earth had I felt so ashamed about taking a little girl to experience something so sacred and important?

Living in the past may not be healthy on a daily basis, but remembering that we all come from real people who struggled through lives before our own is something we do less of as we move into an age overwhelmed by technology. How fitting, then, to be reminded of the importance of protecting memories and tradition from someone who still has so many to learn about.

Chloe has asked to visit a different graveyard soon, and I’m looking forward to spending another beautiful afternoon among the tombs. I wonder what she’ll teach me next time.

About this writer

  • Liz Pardue-Schultz Liz Pardue-Schultz is a writer, model, custom framer and oddity curator in beautiful Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.

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One Response to “A Wonderful Day at the Cemetery”

  1. An interesting read on a subject not often discussed. I like the wording in the second last paragraph – so true. I used stop by and wander through the odd cemetery and try to imagine the lives lived that belonged to the names on the tombstones. I haven’t done that in a long time.

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