|"Asleep in Jesus"|
That's a chunk of the first paragraph of my first book, published just about forty years ago. We'd been out to eat somewhere with my in-laws, and were traipsing around the country where my father-in-law grew up when we happened on this ancient graveyard, a place far more distinguishable for what wasn't there than what was, just a few stones hither and yon, all of them leaning precariously.
Two years ago I stumbled on an old unkempt cemetery, miles from any main road, surrounded by Iowa corn. Few stones remained upright, many were gone. But the stones that were there and still readable told an incredible story of children and tragic death, and I knew at that moment that a significant, unrecorded human drama had once occurred here, far from the cities, at this isolated spot in the garden of America.
But I knew also that just as the stones themselves had been lost, many of the old stories would not last the passing of a generation, unless someone tried to give them the life they deserved, not only as interesting tales, but also for the strength they illustrated and the wisdom they carried.I didn't take any pictures back then, but it seemed to me yesterday, when I walked around out there again for the first time in forty years, that there may well have been more stones back then. Several are toppled, some grown over with weeds, whatever name they carried or remembered long ago undiscoverable.
The kids out there still chills the soul. Of the readable few, there's lots of children.
|"AGED 7 Ys. 11Ms. 3Ds|
|"Children of Chas and Mrs.(?) French|
|"The angels called him."|
|Annie Dau. of E.W. and M.Willey Born Dec. 7 1887 Died Aug. 23, 1888|
Forty years after that first visit, at least I know the name--Union/Dunkard cemetery. Its constituency, like its populace, has vanished. No one's left to regard what's out there. No one puts out flowers in late May. What's knowable about anyone out here diminishes with every passing season.
The "Union" in the name signifies this hallowed ground holds a Civil War vet. Maybe this man, Aaron Willey.
It's the Union/Dunkard Cemetery because a Dunkard church once stood not far away, the German Baptist Church of Pleasant Valley, a fellowship who came and left in less than thirty years.
Union/Dunkard, like so many country graveyards sits up on a knoll, as if communication between this world and the next were somehow aided by elevation. The sun was shining, but there was nothing to slow a persistent numbing wind out of the southeast. It was cold out there for an hour or so. No one came by.
Forty years ago, the nameless graveyard was a place full of stories. I was younger I'd hear them if I'd read and listen. I'm less sure now, all these years later. But then, I'm 70 and soon to have a birthday.
These days there's nothing around Union/Dunkard but hogs, all of them inside, out of the wind, temperature controlled, hundreds of them in two neighboring confinements. The people who once lived there--and their descendants--are gone, and along with them, the stories they knew and told. What's left is a jumble of stones, the only straight line, the horizon far, far away.
Funerals are strange things. You cry your eyes out, then, a minute later, laugh and sing with a gorgeous conviction. Forty years later, out there Union/Dunkard was cold and unwelcoming, barely an upright stone to be found, a dozen unreadable, and it'll only get worse.
But if there was a better spot to be yesterday in Sioux County, Iowa, I wouldn't have known it. I loved being out there alone, mid-morning--which is why I can say that this morning I'm thankful for the place, wind-driven and uninviting as it was and is. It was a good place to visit, a good place to be.