Tag Archives: children’s grave

Death’s Garden: A Message In the Grass

All photos by Patricia Merewether.

All photos by Patricia Merewether.

by Patricia Merewether

I practically ran the six blocks from my elementary school to our street. I was ten years old. Two events made it nearly impossible for me to focus on the chalkboard or Sister Grace Esther’s lessons that day. The first was that my grandmother waited for me; she’d taken a Greyhound bus from Pittsburgh all the way to our house in Detroit to spend the week with us. But the best thing was that Mom was bringing my new brother home from the hospital. I’d always wanted a brother or sister, like other kids, and now he was coming home!

I turned the corner to see Grandma, her white curls, blue housedress, and sturdy black grandma Shoes, pacing at the end of the driveway. That seemed odd, but I was so excited to see her that I ran even faster, calling “Grandma!” I ran to her so fast that I nearly knocked her over with my hug. But as I grinned up at her, her face looked strange. Her gray eyes didn’t crinkle in smile lines like they usually did and her chin was shaking. She looked so sad.

She said, “Patty, your brother died.”


“Your Mom and Dad had to take him back to the hospital and there was something wrong with his heart. I’m so sorry.”

That’s where the memory always fades to black. I don’t remember a thing until we drove through the cemetery. I remember the little fancy houses that I later learned were mausoleums. I wondered if the man in the news, whose name sounded the same, lived in them. Then the car drove to the very back of the cemetery, where the chain-link fence was, just like ours at home. We got out of the car and walked toward a little crooked pine tree. It was about the same size as me. I wondered how such a crooked little tree could be so green and healthy looking.

At the base of the tree lay the flat, cold-looking stone with Matthew Richard Bamford and dates carved into it. The thought of my baby brother in a box under the ground proved too much for me and I ran back to the car. I met deep, painful sorrow, a feeling that rivals the cancer and other surgeries I’d have over my lifetime.

I grew up and married. My parents moved to another state. Many years later, my dad drove back to Michigan to visit. He and I went to the cemetery. I was amazed that the little crooked tree had grown taller, as had I, so the effect threw me back to that first visit.

When we looked for the stone, it was gone. How could that be? Who would take a plain, flat, simple marker from an infant’s grave?

Dad’s knees were bad. He just stared at the spot, tears rolling down his weathered cheeks. I knelt, placed my hand where it had been, and felt something hard beneath the grass.

“Dad! It’s here. The grass has just grown over it. Give me your pocketknife!”

MATTHEWSTREEI carefully cut all the way around the edges, then lifted the small green carpet of turf away and laid it aside. We stared down at the carved letters. I poured my bottle of water over it and wiped it clean with my tissues. It looked as new and fresh as that first day!

When it was time to go, I lifted the rectangle of grass to carry it to the trash. My dad said, “Patty, look!”

He pointed to the bottom of the mass of roots. The soil and water had pulled them into the carvings. There, in what looked like cursive because of the way the roots connected the letters, was a perfect copy, in reverse, of my brother’s name formed by nature and time. I felt a little chill and a presence. I looked around as if expecting to see the little boy that never was.


patwhitehatPatricia Merewether is an artist and writer.  Her articles and short stories have appeared in magazines such as Country Folk Art, Greenprints and Western Lifestyles.  Her paintings are available on her facebook page Patsarts and on Zazzle.com.  She lives in rural Michigan with her husband, two rescue pups, and about a dozen stray cats that she feeds twice a day.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Today my brother would have been 49

Rhoads_Allen_3853The wind ruffles the leaves, making a gentle rustle that seems to echo my breath. It’s a sound so gentle it is no sound, or else it’s the sound of the sea, of the blood, of life in its inexhaustible rush from birth to grave. Ashes to ashes, leaf to earth to soil to feed the roots to swell the buds to form leaves again to capture the sun. Everything is a cycle, endlessly spinning: the earth in its orbit, the sun whirling through the galaxy, one continuous dance flowing farther and farther out from its heart and never ever finding rest.

My brother is buried here. The wind whispers through the variegated grass that has grown high in front of the stone, obscuring words I no longer need to see to feel them stabbing into my heart, a long thin prick like a knitting needle, jabbing again and again so deep that I don’t feel the path of the pain, only its terminus, the point from which it radiates out into my limbs like a heart attack, like a stoppage of breath when you choke on something that cannot be swallowed and cannot be coughed out, which much lodge inside until you die of it.

I do not want him to be dead. My daughter tells me, in a sweet plantive voice, that she wishes she knew him. She wishes he had not chosen to drink himself to death before she was implored from the oblivion that exists before birth to come and help me heal the pain in my heart.

I wish she had known him, too.

She sometimes refuses to come to this graveyard with me any more. Once she came here and gaily chased rabbits, streaks of silence through the dancing grass. Now she knows it makes me sad like nowhere else in the world. Here lies my brother, my grandmother, the only grandfather I ever knew, and the grandmother who helped raise me, alongside her husband, who was dead before my parents conceived me. And a cousin, killed in a car accident before her first birthday, though not before mine.

Many hopes lie buried here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Juxtaposition

Broken bud

Broken bud

This week’s photo challenge is to show two things side by side that comment on each other.  I like the juxtaposition of the broken rosebud on the gravestone beside the lovely pink rosebush behind it.

Broken buds like this one are often found on the monuments to Victorian children.  It’s hard to imagine a more perfect illustration of a parent’s shock and sadness when faced with burying their child, the sense of the beauty and potential cut short.  I couldn’t imagine what that kind of loss would feel like until I had an irreplaceable bud of my own.

I took this photo on a blisteringly hot afternoon in Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery. The Heritage Rose Group of the Friends of the Cemetery carefully tend the antique roses.  The cemetery’s website has this wonderful quote on it: “Many of these antique roses were brought across to California in the holds of ships or carried in wagon trains by early pioneers… Because roses are propagated by taking a piece of the original to start a new plant, they are, in essence, the same plant.  Therefore, roses in a Mandarin’s garden in old China or Empress Josephine’s famous 18th-century French garden are now planted in Sacramento’s Historic Rose Garden” in the cemetery.

I love the idea of these immortal flowers blooming and fading and blooming again over the centuries, thriving atop the graves of people who are gone to bloom again in another garden.


My other posts about the Sacramento City Cemetery:

A lamb on another child’s grave

Do not bury me in the cold ground.

Interview with one of the tour guides.

Upcoming tours & garden events in the cemetery.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign

The Grim Reaper in Florence’s English Cemetery

After our visit to Il Cimitero degli Inglesi, I read the little booklet available from the cemetery office.  It said that many of the people buried in the “English” Cemetery were in fact Italians, who had been persecuted for their Protestant beliefs. Challenging the Pope’s authority in Italy in the 19th century had been a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment and also refusal to be buried in sanctified ground. I wondered if the Swiss Evangelic Church had ever been allowed to bless the land of the cemetery it oversaw.

In the sea of sculpture that stood on this little island of the dead, the most amazing monument marked an Italian’s grave. A larger-than-life skeleton brandished a scythe, about to slice down a clump of stone lilies. The Reaper wore his shroud like a cloak, tossed jauntily over one shoulder. The raw bones of his shin and thigh peeped out at the bottom. A rag blindfolded his eye sockets but didn’t mask his grimacing teeth. I’d never seen anything like him. I haven’t been able to discover any information about Andrea di Mariano Casentini (1855-1870), but clearly Mama and Papa had some message to give the world when they lost their child.

In America, parents mark their children’s graves with teddy bears or toy cars.  In the 19th century, when Casentini’s monument was created, Americans chose lambs (to connotate innocence) or broken rosebuds (to symbolize lives ended too soon).  Nowhere have I seen Death, in all his glory, standing over American children.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Purple

Child’s grave, Pescadero, California

Last July, I took my daughter half an hour away from home for a week of pony camp.  She stayed with my friend Kristin’s family, but it was as long as she’d ever been away from home before.

I dropped her off at the ranch Monday morning, waved goodbye with a lump in my throat, and went off to a cafe to research the cemetery I’d heard about farther south, down in Pescadero, California.  Kristin said she’d tried to find the grave of that little girl who died in a plane crash there, without any luck.

After a little poking around on the internet, I learned that buried in Pescadero was Jessica Dubroff, the 7-year-old who died in 1996 while trying to become the youngest person ever to fly across the US.  While trying to keep up with their media commitments, her flight instructor had taken off in a storm over Wyoming and couldn’t keep the plane aloft. Everyone onboard was killed.

Like Kristin, I looked and looked around the little graveyard, without being sure I’d found Jessica’s monument.  There was a strange cement monument that reminded me of a porthole in a ship or a plane’s window, but I didn’t see Jessica’s name on it.

According to Findagrave, this is Jessica Dubroff’s monument.

While I searched, the little stone dedicated to Nellie spoke to me more clearly.  Surrounded by Spanish lavender, which doesn’t mind California’s long dry summers, the white marble stone was decorated with a lamb, the symbol of innocence that often marked Victorian children’s graves.  Little Nellie had been gone a long time, but evidently she wasn’t forgotten.

Before I became a mother, I never understood the depth of pain that could be summarized by a child’s headstone.  After I struggled through my pregnancy — facing both my own death and that of my daughter — I began to understand what it meant to have something entirely irreplaceable.  I wondered if I could survive if she died.  I wondered if I could ever let her out of my sight.

Seven years later, I knew — even if she didn’t — that pony camp was dangerous.  She could fall from her mount and break her collarbone, as my father had.  She could be thrown off and strike her head.  Perhaps I had already said goodbye to her for the last time.

Nellie’s stone was one more reminder that life is fragile, and precious, and every moment together should be savored.  I hung around the California coast until pony camp got out for the day, so I could snatch a few more moments with my daughter.  She never knew why I hugged her so tightly.