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.