The tug of history

This past Thursday, I drove 2 1/2 hours north into Central PA, to an old, small, red brick church in the country.  The occasion was the funeral service and burial of my Great Aunt May, and the venue was the church where I was raised, located within view of the farm where I grew up.

The minister was new to the church and didn’t know Aunt May well, but he said he learned much during his meeting with her five children. In particular, he said he found great comfort in knowing that May would take her eternal rest in a place where many generations before her also chose to be buried. It warmed his heart, he said, to think that she would be surrounded by her ancestors.

It’s true, she’s buried next to her first husband, my Uncle Gilbert, but technically, the little cemetery in the valley holds many generations of his family, not hers.  Nevertheless, she proudly took the Beaver name when she married.  She even researched and wrote a geneaology book, outlining the descendants of George Beaver of Pfoutz Valley, PA. It was this George who, in 1878, would be the first of many to be buried in that quiet plot of land that is surrounded yet today by fields of grain.

As I exited the highway and drove through Millerstown, turned right to go up the hill, past my high school, then out into the valley, I felt as if I was being transported back in time. (The Simple Minds song on the radio helped.) I used to drive from home to school a couple of times a day and joked then that I could probably drive it with my eyes closed.  I used to know who lived in every house along the five-mile route. Now, I know many have been sold to new occupants. Things are “turning over” in the valley.

The inside of Pfoutz Valley United Methodist Church hasn’t changed much since I left home for college in 1985. The same portrait of Jesus hangs on the wall over the same gold cross on the same altar furniture.  Ginny played hymns on the same organ I used to practice on during that one year I took lessons in high school.  Food for the post-funeral luncheon was arranged on the table in the kitchen where my Sunday School class met when I was a teen.  Several of the men and women who watched me grow up were there, attending to the food so that the mourners could eat and visit with each other.

I understand what the minister was trying to say, about finding comfort in being surrounded by so much history. He remarked that many people don’t have that. I moved to the DC area almost 20 years ago and figure we’ll stay here at least until the kids are grown, if not longer. But when I think about where I would want to be buried, my mind always wanders back to the little cemetery in the valley. My dad’s there, my grandma and grandpa are there, and all those generations of ancestors, a little piece from whom I carry within my own genes.  Also, I like how the cemetery is next to the church. Around here, there are huge “memorial parks” that have no church association. Our own church doesn’t have its own cemetery.   It just makes sense to me for one to be buried next to the place where one worshipped.

But would it make sense for my survivors to cart me the whole way up there?  Not really. It’s not practical. I mean, I spent only 16 years of my life there. But they were the formative years. The ones that really leave a big impression on my soul.  And even though I’ve been gone now for more years than I lived there, I still feel the tug of history, the pull of that connection to those who went before.

9 thoughts on “The tug of history

  1. It’s great that you have that feeling about the place you grew up, and it makes sense that you would want to be buried there.

    You and your family have a history there, and that’s become less and less common these days. Embrace the tug of history!!!

  2. You were transplanted to the DC area and are thriving just fine, but your roots are in Pennsylvania. I would want to be laid to rest with family and not next to some stranger in a cemetery with little–if any– connection to my life.

    As I write those words I realize how silly they actually are; when we’re dead and gone it really doesn’t matter where we are or in what shape our body’s in nor what cemetery we’re in, except somehow it matters when we’re living and it might matter to anyone who tries to hunt us down generations from now.

    1. I know CBW, I’m aware of that – that it seems a little nutso to fret about where I’m gonna be laid to rest, when in fact it only really matters to anyone who’s trying to piece together a geneaology and maybe to those who survive, but really, not so much, because frankly, life goes on… BUT STILL. I think about it. I do. Call me crazy.

  3. This is hard to put into words. I tried and I can’t. But what it boils down to is, I know that feeling, and walking through that cemetery is an amazing thing. Dozens of our ancestors raised familes in that valley. But then something happened. We left. We broke the chain, Meg. When I feel that tug of history, for me, it’s kind of a feeling of regret about the fact that I am not there living that life, taking care of a big brick federal farm house and raising up the kids and being a farm wife. It’s not really about being buried there. It’s about not living there. It’s kind of a “road not taken” thing.

    I also think, once your body is dead, it hardly matters where it is laid to rest. Our souls will find each other and that is the important thing. Of course I want my body treated respectfully, but honestly, I could not care less where somebody puts it. I am not even sure I would need a marker, but if those who are left behind want a marker, then that is fine, but to me it is up to the people who are left behind. Because i am not there anymore.

    1. Bets, maybe that’s it. I actually remember hearing a number of years ago that Aunt May herself expressed regret that none of her kids wanted to stick around and run the farm. I think Dad still would have been there, but Aunts Cathy and Anne didn’t stay either. I don’t regret leaving, but I sometimes wonder how things would have been different if I hadn’t left, or if our folks were still living there.

      And maybe that’s why it seems a little silly to think about where you get “planted” for the hereafter. But you DO need a marker so that generations from now, your great-great-great grandkids can hunt it down and stand there and go, huh. So that’s her.

  4. I’d like to be cremated, have the ashes buried in the valley beside your dad, and have a marker. I’d like a marker mainly because I’ve been with people who’ve had relatives cremated and the ashes scattered and now there’s no place to honor their memory. Maybe it isn’t important to have a “place ” but if anyone EVER wants to try to establish lineage, the marker would help. After I’m cremated, you guys can have a memorial service at your convenience, and then have one heck of a party. Hire a jazz band to play me in, and play me out.
    It can be a point of discussion with a second husband. Pappy Dan wanted Grandma Sara to be buried next to him, and she insisted on being buried next to your Pap-pap (Ross)Beaver, for the sake of accurate genealogy.
    Plus, if you are cremated, there is no “lugging” and no hurry for the funeral service. Ashes don’t weigh much.

  5. Thanks for the support. The hole one’s ashes are placed in in a cemetery is small, and they charge a nominal “opening fee.” At the church I belong to, All Saints’, there is a garden at one corner of the church, since we don’t have a columbarium, in which ashes are placed. If the death occurs in the dead (sorry about the pun) of winter and the ground is frozen, the ashes are kept in the sacristy where Eucharist is prepared and where vestments are stored. The ashes are then “planted” when the ground thaws. Once I went into the sacristy to do some work, I turned around and there were Richard King’s ashes in a box, staring at me!. He stayed there with me until spring. Took a little getting used to.

  6. I think that anyone who grew up in the Valley will always carry a part of it with them. I was back this summer to church and walked the cemetery with Susan and together we looked at the headstones with lovingly thoughts of all our relatives. The hilltop setting contributes to the peacefulness of it. Yes, we’ve all left, but as you say, are tugged back from time to time.

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