It’s early December and I’m on a walk though the Catholic cemetery that abuts the hospital where I serve as a chaplain. Not to worry, though. I’m not looking for permanent residency.
I’m here making my twice-daily fitness walk along its one-mile perimeter road. And truly, I must add that there’s no better way to inspire physical fitness than strolling through a cemetery.
Today the cemetery is bustling nearly every bit as a Christmas mall. At one point, I’m surrounded by proud families who honor their veterans by planting flags and ribbons atop the graves of long gone warriors. They replace wilted flowers with artificial bouquets in hopes they’ll withstand the salvos of a wintery blast. Soon, I’m forced aside by a carload of grievers who are searching for a particular grave. The car stops several yards ahead and a young couple emerges. She’s barely able to stand as she focuses on the small headstone of a child-sized grave.
A dozen rows beyond the anguished couple, a family brings flowers of nearly every variety and color. Some of the elderly family members blend their catholic teaching with their Asian culture by placing food on the headstone.
Halfway into my walk, I find shelter under a canopy of fruitless pear trees.
The leaves that stubbornly cling to the trees create a kaleidoscope of colored chaos above me. Those that have fallen lay down a carpet of golden brown that stirs under my feet.
Near the end of my stroll, I see a parked sedan that nearly matches its sole occupant in rust and age. The elderly man steps from his car with the help of a walker and raises the trunk. He removes several boxes, placing them one-by-one on his walker for transport to a nearby headstone.
As I approach, I see him standing beside a 5-foot Christmas tree positioned near the headstone. He stoops into the boxes with a grunting effort and removes a handful of ornaments and begins assigning each ornament its place on the tree.
He takes special care as if those lying beneath the newly mowed grass can appreciate the ribbons, flowers and trinkets. It’s as if he’s telling them, “I still want to have this holiday with you. I don’t want to be alone. I wish you were here. Even in death, I still celebrate life with you.”
I continue my hike, but the next day, I return to the cemetery, curious to read the gravestone and photograph the tree. The dates on the grave hint that this might be the final resting place of the decorator’s parents.
While a cynic might interpret this scene as the saddest of Christmas happenings, I can’t help but see something wonderfully familiar in this man’s celebration.
Four years ago, my wife lost her mother who was the embodiment of the Christmas spirit. Her Christmas tree became the seasonal symbol of the immeasurable love she brought to our lives.
So, like this man, Christmas links me with the past we had with mom. I seek that link because memories still impact how I live and even who I will become.
Finally someday, as my children walk into the cemetery where I reside, they know they needn’t bring a Christmas tree. However, I pray that like this man, they bring a reason to celebrate the memories we’ve created together so as to keep the Merry in their Christmas.