The concept of death is complicated. Many times we are unable to find the words, we stumble through our thoughts or we’re uncomfortable approaching the subject. In our home we’ve become quite comfortable with the discussion of death. Emily seeks answers to this significant yet inevitable part of our existence, answers we cannot always provide. She embraces the beauty of life and she speaks of her fears of death. We grieve our loved ones openly and with a raw beauty that is at times hidden in our world. Every holiday for the past several years, Emily writes a new Eulogy for our dog, Champ. She writes words of love and adoration to him and we walk to the beach, dog toy in hand (with notes written in sharpie), she reads her piece and we throw the toy to him in the ocean. In between holidays she’ll often say “okay I’m going to go see Champ for a while” and she’ll walk to his headstone planted in the yard and sit for a period of time. You’ll see her laughing and engaging in conversation or at times just sitting peacefully. There is such an innocence about this, a beauty really. When she returns we ask how Champ is doing and she says he’s doing okay, spending time with Gerry and Uncle Lenny, Gramps and Annie – she’ll go on to list every single person she knows that has passed away and how they just love spending time with Champ in heaven. When someone new passes she often asks their age, whether they’ll enjoy spending time with Champ and our other loved ones in heaven. She finds solace in their eternal peace and the ability to be together again.
We discuss finding strength in hardship and using our love to support one another. We use this time to reflect on memories and times of joy, we acknowledge the pain of illness and that this is their ability to find peace. We acknowledge that grief is hard, it’s painful and it’s normal. We encourage feeling these emotions and feeling them strongly, we encourage talking about them (hence why we now are so often talking about “well how old would they be now” or “what do you think Annie and Gramps are doing today”). Our grandmother is currently enduring hospice care, something we have become too familiar with in our home. Emily struggles with this process as we bear witness to the process of death and this beginning of grief prior to death. Death and the process of dying can be lonely and it is most certainly frightening – yet it can also be an opportunity for growth, connection and vulnerability. It can be an opportunity for empowerment and a sense of self.
One thing that Emily loves to do, and we fully support, is visit the headstones of our loved ones. We bring flowers or momentums of sentiment and spend time in the cemetery, sharing conversation and memories, sometimes just being in silence together. It’s important for Emily to feel a connection to those she has lost and it’s brought this to our hearts and minds in a new way. I don’t think I would’ve been someone sitting in a cemetery if it weren’t for Emily.
This brings me to Tony Walker, our Good Cemeterian! Tony loves spending his days in the cemetery but not for reasons you might assume. Tony began to wonder as he aged about his family tree and his heritage. As he created his connections he began visiting the gravesites where he noticed many headstones to be in poor condition. This led to Tony doing independent research on how to properly care for a headstone through it’s aging process as well as within the elements. Tony began treating the headstones of his family members on the property and as he explored the grounds he discovered many stones in need of repair and he thought “well..I should just start working on those too!”
“I found several family members gravestones but they were in poor condition and I thought – well someone should do something about this – and then I realized oh well I am that one that should do something this is my family”
Many people view cemeteries or gravesites as morbid, a place with a darkness around it. Yet Tony sheds a light into this darkness “I think of a cemetery as a happy place where I can remember someone, when I’m going there I’m not there to be sad, I’m there to celebrate this person’s story and their life….I think of it like a park, a peaceful place I can go.” Tony spends his time coordinating with cemetery staff in order to refurbish old headstones and bring beauty to the grounds. He has an expansive TikTok providing education on how to restore headstones and properly care for them – it’s fulled equipped with a do’s and don’ts list as well as many factors that can have a role in decay! Tony reminds us to always check-in with the cemetery even if you’re hoping to work on a headstone of a family member or loved one! If you’re doing something significant it’s important to check-in first!
There’s something very satisfying about hundreds of years of dirt being wiped clean, revealing a story long left untold. Tony reveals the beauty of life after death, allowing us to remain in the moment of the story we leave behind.