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Shortly after sunrise, I walk through our church’s cemetery each morning. I look forward to my daily walk. It has become central to my routine, and I miss it if I don’t get to walk on any given day.

This is the best time to walk among the monuments to the dead. At that time of day, it’s usually just me on the path, maybe a few deer, and the road in front of the church is quiet. The commuters are still about half an hour from leaving their drives.

Because I take this walk every day and have for almost two years, I know these stones and the names engraved upon them very well. I know who rests where, the husbands and their wives when they lived when they died, who was a veteran, who died young, who lived full lives, and even a few who died from the Spanish flu over a hundred years ago. In a way, they have become my friends. I look forward to seeing them each morning. I greet them as I approach the cemetery’s edge and wish them a “Good Morning.” I am still waiting for someone to return my greetings, but I feel no reason not to be polite. These are also my parishioners. They live beyond the sanctuary walls and inhabit our memories and minds instead of seats and pews. 

The springtime and Easter flower arrangements decorating the tops and fronts of some headstones add color to the otherwise gray rows of stones. It’s nice to see who’s been by and had their family pay a recent visit. I wonder how this makes the deceased feel. Do they feel proud that someone cares enough to place an arrangement by their headstone? Are they watching their remains decay in the red clay of central North Carolina? Perhaps they’re distracted by some erupting supernova or another cosmic delicacy we mere mortals cannot imagine. These are the questions I ask myself on my morning walk.

This morning I noticed a new stone where previously only a ground marker lay. A darker stone depicted a man fly fishing on one side while sharing his name, birth date, and date of death on the adjacent side. He died too young. On the opposite side depicting the fly fisherman, someone had left a pair of flip-flops and sunglasses on the bottom ledge of the stone. I’m always amazed at what gets left by stones in cemeteries (not just ours but the tradition in general). It’s a practice that links us back to our most ancient ancestors when we began burying each other some 50,000 years ago. There’s nothing explicitly Christian about this practice. In the West, we see it most noticeably practiced in Egypt, where the Pharaoh’s tombs were stuffed with objects they were thought to need to make their way to then survive in the afterlife. Those flip-flops and sunglasses were a bit of ancient Egyptian mythology and prehistoric burial practice that came to life on a Thursday morning in 2023. As advanced as we think we are, we’re not all that different from our ancestors regarding death and burial rituals. Our liturgy is Christian. The scriptures we quote are Judeo-Christian. However, we’re still the same scared, frightened creatures looking for the same existential answers that we were when we first started asking the most important questions any human has ever asked, “What comes next?”

By the way, please don’t leave any of my things outside when it comes my time. Just cremate me and keep my shoes, socks, glasses, and fountain pens inside the house. I don’t need or want a stone. If you meet a band of roving Vikings, let them do the funeral. Tell them I want the Viking Funeral special. They’ll know what to do. Then ask them to coordinate the reception. It will be a blast! I’ll be looking on from Valhalla, ensuring my belongings aren’t exposed to the elements. 

–Richard Bryant