Over the years, my father and I have fallen into a routine which has developed into a rather quaint ritual. Together, we travel to a cemetery to pray at the tombs of members of our family. This ritual has inevitably become more frequent in recent years.
The cemetery where my immediate family is buried is situated in a large park-like setting. I was told by my grandmother that it was patterned after a famous cemetery in California. She would know, of course, since she had lived in California at one time. Currently, she resides at the cemetery. The cemetery is vaguely Protestant and even more vaguely Masonic, but it is a peaceful place with a lovely chapel. It is perhaps not the place I would have chosen, but, nevertheless, we have put down roots there as a family. Or something like that.
I remember as a young child being brought to visit the grave of my grandfather, Floyd. My mother would always fret over the young tree near his grave which gave the distinct impression of getting ready to die. She complained to the management of the cemetery that this was, in effect, bad for business and that they should do something about it. They never did. Floyd was joined by my grandmother Edith, of California fame, many years later. My father always comments on how young his father-in-law was when he died. So very young.
Across the field lies the grave of my other grandparents, Enrico and Mafalda. They were Italian, you know. And still are, I imagine. My dad usually has a wreath, plastic flowers or an American flag placed near their grave, depending upon the time of the year. When we visit, he instinctively bends down and cleans off the grave of leaves and dirt. At this and all the graves we visit, he makes the sign of the cross and prays. And I, in my role as son to the original “Father Girotti,” defer to my father to lead us in prayer. It is always beautiful when I hear my father pray.
The final step of our ritual is to go and visit the grave of my mother, Margaret, who is buried in an adjoining section of the cemetery. The family of a neighboring tenant had the good sense to purchase a bench, which doubles as a grave. I often sit there to pray for my mother. Mom always has beautiful flowers purchased in her memory, which brightens things up considerably. I could hardly believe my eyes at a recent visit when I noticed the dates on her tombstone. It really has been 10 years since her passing. Where has the time gone?
I am always surprised that, whenever my father and I visit the cemetery, there is rarely anybody else there. This is most unfortunate, since people do not realize what they are missing. They will inevitably realize it someday. What a wonderful way to focus the mind on what is most important in life. And to remember! I wonder if more of our problems could be solved today by simply visiting a cemetery.
In recent years, the cemetery has had a change in ownership, which is now neither Protestant nor Masonic, but rather interested in the religion of cost cutting. They have done so with gusto and it shows. The place, I am ashamed to say, looks a little … shabby. The one constant that remains, however, in the corner of the cemetery, now towering over the grave of my grandparents, is the ever-dying tree, which my mother had complained about some 40 years ago. It still stands! And it still looks like it’s dying. Just like you and me.
Visit a cemetery soon and pray for the dead. You’ll be glad you did.
Fr. Girotti is vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.