Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 19, 2009

Ritual Days: Graveside, Fireside, Side-by-Side

Sometimes, any old gravestone will do.
Sometimes, any old gravestone will do.

Visited my father’s and grandparents’ grave site yesterday. Amazingly, four of my eight great-grandparents (all four on Mom’s side) are in the same cemetery. The elder Stellas are just thirty yards from Grandma & Papa Stella (and Dad, the token Irishman/in-law… waiting for Mom to slip in beside him eventually). The Fillicaro ancestors are way across the huge Mt. Carmel Cemetery, in one of its oldest sections, where most of the gravestones are written up in Italian instead of English.

This activity and grieving was sparked partly by my great aunt Geri seeking some support while arranging for her own mausoleum crypt. Aunt Geri’s single — and as she puts it “doesn’t like dirt” — so instead of being interred next to her mother and father, she’ll be cremated and dropped into a marble box alongside dozens of other marble boxes, her unknown but eternal neighbors.

It’s pretty there, though. I’m not saying anything negative here about cremation or mausoleums, or whatever these condo-like, open-air crypt complexes are technically called. Just one of many fine alternatives.

As for me, I want to be in the ground, with at least a footstone. But a headstone would be nice, so I can fit some cryptic “last words” on it at the bottom. We’ll see. Suggestions below in the comment section regarding what should be inscribed on my tombstone are welcome, especially from those of you who know me well. (“Died with his sandals on…”; “Beloved Nobel Prize Winner”, you know what I mean…)

My mom is Aunt Geri’s practical support person for stuff like this, so she was there too. Thus Sue, Graham and I were mostly just along for the ride, and to show Graham where his Grandpa is buried. But with Dad’s 70th birthday happening next week, I suppose I was also there to pay my respects, and move along in my own journey of grief (as if seeing a shrink –which I just started last week– wasn’t enough).

Only one problem: I wasn’t “feeling” respectful. Wasn’t feeling anything really, except extreme gratitude for gorgeous weather and a deep appreciation for all the  beautiful old, gnarled trees in the graveyard. But I guess that was okay too: my spirit still sent up prayers when my brain was looking the other way.

[Cool but totally irrelevant link: I’m sort of a fan of the influential American painter Frank Stella, even though I don’t think he’s related to our family. Check out some of his modernist work over here.]

I actually have a long history of hanging around graveyards. My first web-published story was a creative nonfiction riff on a walk through an Irish Catholic graveyard, with a consideration of my own immigrant heritage. That was in 1999 in a small-but-mighty webzine called Tweak, and it was the last piece of my creative writing Dad got to read before he passed. He read a paper version while in his hospital bed, enjoying my references to his mother (an O’Brien), though perhaps he didn’t connect much with my admittedly odd style and voice. Then Dad limped off to meet his mother in heaven in March of that year, just three months shy of sixty.

Meanwhile, back on this topside of the turf, I am preparing a different sort of ritual experience for my male spirituality group. The day before I leave for Europe (which is itself a sort of pilgrimage), I’ll lead about a half-dozen middle aged white men (and a part-time Latino or two) through a Pacific Northwest Indian creation myth (“Raven Brings Light to the People”). We’ll also do a faux fireside blessing/empowerment ritual. I say “faux” because we’ll be gathered around candles indoors, in a great old convent chapel, instead of outside around a bonfire, where such transformative stories should be told.

Fire in any form is an important ritual element, so candles will work fine. But nothing beats the enveloping experience of a campfire. Crickets, orange glow on faces, the scent of burning hickory… nothing like it in the known universe.

So where’s all this talk of ritual leading? I don’t know. I am just trusting it. That’s the main purpose of ritual: it opens up a different door, offers a glimpse of the mystery, a peek at whatever our heart or our God have to show us this day, if we listen.

Knock  knock…


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