I’ve spent enough time in cemeteries to cause friends to worry, but it’s not the burial ground’s promise of eternal peace and quiet that lures me there.
Well, I do value peace and quiet. But beyond that, I enjoy roaming a cemetery that has stories to tell: brief stories chiseled onto weathered grave markers interspersed among stately old oaks. Epitaphs taken from the Bible, epigrams in the languages of immigrants gone a century or more. Names of angelic children taken by disease or tragedy, old soldiers who died in their beds, soldiers not yet 20 when they died far from home.
Thirty years ago, I wrote about visiting Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, where Margaret Mason and three birder friends came through “much like the gathering warblers they pursued: swooping, pausing, swooping again.”
Margaret said a cemetery is a good place for birding. “You just say, ‘Over there above Morrison,’ or ‘Just to the right of Bloch there.’” She and her friends moved on, and I contemplated the undisturbed memorials to Morrison and Bloch, and that of Anita Clynes, who died in 1981 at age 87. Her epitaph: “Would she could pass this way again.” Did she suggest those words of longing? If not, who did?
I’ve been revisiting cemeteries in my mind lately because of a post I came across on a Facebook page, “North Dakota History of Cities, Towns, and Places.” It was written by Gary Keith Gunderson, a retired Lutheran pastor who officiated at many funerals of people who had asked to be buried by the home place, next to family and near to where they had grown and played when they were young, before they moved far away.
“I have buried scores of people … people I only know through death,” he wrote. “And I understand. And will try to do the best I can with what I have.
“I do not want it to be a generic service. Every person's life, including yours, is singular and precious. You once walked the streets of Cando or Bisbee. You once skipped rope or played softball on the playground.”
Gunderson, 78, lives in Moorhead, Minn. He grew up on the prairies of northwestern South Dakota and southwestern North Dakota. He graduated from high school in Hettinger, N.D., studied history and English at what’s now Dickinson State University and taught at small schools until he entered a seminary and became a minister. His first calls were to churches in the tiny North Dakota towns of Max and Reeder.
He was still a teacher and theologian, a reader and writer, and in the 1970s and ‘80s knew Thomas McGrath, Larry Woiwode and Kathleen Norris, who mentioned him in her 1993 book “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.”
His grandfather had homesteaded in Harding County, S.D., and his father grew up there, a cowboy and later a sheepherder, but was living in Tacoma, Wash., when he died.
“In his heart Harding County was always my father's home. He was the boy who grew up riding the range for hours on end tending to cattle. He was the young man who went to dances in places like Marmarth. …”
And Harding County was where he wanted to be buried, “near his mother, Mathilde, and his father, Gerhard H., in the quiet cemetery on that quiet dandelion strewn rise west of where Ladner (S.D.) used to be. And so he was. And later my mother's ashes were brought to be interred beside him.”
As a pastor in small towns, Gunderson “saw lives come full circle, from childhood in a small prairie village in the middle of nowhere, to lives in cities way out there somewhere, then back home where they always belonged but couldn't stay, for the economy of Dakota has been too fragile and too narrow to retain them all.”
His post drew many admiring comments, including one from a man who said he found it difficult to explain to his wife and kids why he occasionally stops by the cemetery a mile east of Gladstone, N.D.
“They will wonder aloud why anyone would choose to spend eternity in this godforsaken, wind-blown, dry, brown, unnamed piece of prairie,” Mylo Candee wrote, and then he explained:
“The family plot holds five generations of pioneer missionaries, aunts and uncles, nephews. And at least one total stranger.” And nearby, “the grave of a 4-year-old child, kicked in the head by a horse in 1902.”
Gunderson said he will be buried on a hill north of the farm his wife grew up on, south of Taylor, N.D., “adjacent to where the Jesperson farm used to be. And dandelions will sprout and seed over my grave. And the Dakota wind and rain and snow and sun will look down upon me. And I shall be at peace. For I will be at home beside the one I loved beneath the land I loved in life, until the trumpet sounds.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.