Remembering the Dead as Living

As we walked through the graveyard dusk of a late July some 17 years ago, the dead came alive to me. There as the sun lowered to the horizon and the birds settled to bed, Uncle Ernest told stories at grave after grave.

I was writing the story of my grandmother’s life that year and this visit was to fill in the facts with family “color.” I knew the names from books and letters and could recite their years and children. But I knew nothing of who they were, really, beyond the few mentions in local history books.

My great-uncle Ernest was a story teller with a slow drawl and a winking humor. People who grew up in Mayfield, Utah were like that. His wife, the snowy haired Aunt Ruth bore his stories with a patience grown over nearly 70 years of marriage. “Oh, Ernest,” she’d interject when the tales became just a little too wild for her librarian sensibilities.

“This here was Steenie,” he said in his soft voice. “My, she had a hard life.”  I knew her as Stena from my notes and she’d married a man named Jacobsen. “My pa would go over to see her, stand on the street because Ras wouldn’t let them near. When Ras was gone, her brothers would bring her food. A hard life.”

He brightened at another grave, that of Zenobia. “She had a frying arm and was always making donuts. ‘Come on in,’ she’d call when we walked down the street and she’d have us in for donuts.”

Uncle Ernest chuckled as he recounted the deeds of his long-gone aunts and uncles, my great-great-aunts and uncles and we laughed along with him.

At nearly 40, I was  uninitiated into final sorrow.  Death had stolen through my family but twice and my maternal grandparents were 92 and 103 when they died.  The forces of death were still a mystery, nothing I had experienced with savage grief.

I didn’t know that July dusk that I was on the cusp of death’s horror; my mother died five months later.

Ernest and Ruth, of course, had seen Mayfield’s cemetery fill with friends and relatives. We paused at my great-grandmother’s monolith and I recalled the sad story of Carrie’s death from childbed fever when my grandmother was a mere 18-months old.

“That was something,”  Uncle Ernest recalled of the woman who died long before he was born, “and very hard on Conrad [his father].”

Buried in 1906, Carrie’s death haunted my paternal grandmother and she passed it to me. The night I labored with my second child, I stayed up late reading stories and singing songs to my then 28-month-old first born. I couldn’t bear the thought he might not remember me if I did not survive his sibling’s birth.

Family stories will do that to you.

As a child, I’d always feared being lost, of people forgetting me. Thinking of death left me uneasy: the perpetual loss of personhood. Who would remember me after I was gone?

If I was forgotten, did that mean I never existed?

Uncle Ernest pointed out graves of more people he knew near Carrie and he savored the tales. As the bird calls settled and the headstone shadows lengthened almost to dark, I realized a truth that has held me well.

As long as people remember you with love and stories, you’re never really forgotten.

Fond stories told by loved ones mean the dead can come alive once more.

Uncle Ernest with his laconic wit, bowed gait, and quiet affection, gave me that gift long ago.

Whose story do you need to remember?

Leave a comment


  1. Gilda Weisskopf

     /  July 10, 2012

    Oh, Michelle, how much I envy you. Most of my grandparents were dead before I was able to meet them. I have stories I remember from growing up but never cared about family history until about 10 years ago when my sister started creating our family history books. She has been able to gather some stories from the last 2 uncles who are alive and a remarkable aunt who has passed. Aunt Ruby remembered everything. And recently I discovered a cousin we did not know we had but she has become a part of the family even though we have not yet met. I am starting to put together my husband’s family history. This past Sunday we had a couple of his cousins over to go through a box of pictures left by his mother. What fun we had! The stories were coming alive and I felt a part of the family (finally!). I will be back in touch wih them to record some of the stories. The most unbelieveable story — when Floyd got out his gun and shot a Hummingbird! Yes, a HUMMINGBIRD! Evidently this was a mean hummingbird and would not let any other hummers near the nectar. So Floyd couldn’t take it anymore and shot he bird! In Answer to your question–I would like to remember everyone’s story. Thanks for an inspiring post.

    • Wow, that’s an amazing shot! Thanks for sharing, Gilda, and really, THANKS for sharing. I wrote an extensive family history 12 years ago and in doing so, met so many people with insight and stories about family members.

      I’d encourage you to start googling and you’d be surprised by what you’ll find. The two photos in my blog post were taking off Google images–I have copies of them, but I didn’t want to get out the scanner. Instead, I found all sorts of information posted about my family I didn’t know. And I’ve already written a book about them!

      My point is, others are out there who know things, and you know things others would like to know! Ancestry is a good place to put up the stories (and is available for free using my library’s account. I just have to plug in my library account number!). Trust me, someone, somewhere will be grateful for anything you’ve got!

      (Maybe even me!)

  2. Julie Surface Johnson

     /  July 10, 2012

    Michelle, my sister and I got to laughing the other day on the phone about precious Great Aunt Nettie who had ten dresses, all made from the same pattern because she really liked that pattern. She had a lilting voice and the sweetest smile and always made everyone smile. She still does though she’s been gone over 30 years. I hope that when I’ve been gone 30 years someone will think of me and smile and wish I were still around. That would be something, wouldn’t it!

    • Absolutely, Julie. And I’m willing to bet you’ve made enough differences/stories in someone’s life, you’ll be remembered long after you’re gone.

      BTW–do you have a copy of that pattern? 🙂

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