Lost in the Cemetery

Lost in the Cemetery

Kim Salac
Media Staff

I find cemeteries to be awkward places. I feel incredibly self-conscious in grocery stores, but a cemetery that living people are visiting is a thousand times worse, especially when you can’t find the grave you are looking for.

Danville Memorial Gardens has a vast number of occupants, and I decided to stop by to say “hello” to my step-great-grandpa while I was home for fall break and waiting to get lunch with my mom (the cemetery is right across the street from my favorite diner, Ruben’s on 58). I remembered that his grave was near the praying hands statue and the large cross statue, but I couldn’t remember quite where.

My cousins lived across the street from that cemetery when my brother and I were kids. My younger cousin Kaylea and I once went into the cemetery by ourselves and sat on that cross to see if we could find ghosts. There was also a bench there with the statue of an angel sitting on it, and I tried to coax the angel into revealing that it was secretly real. I asked if it would tell God and Jesus that I said “hello,” and confided that if they could make me a psychic, I would like that. I think I believed it was an Elf on the Shelf or Night at the Museum kind of deal where things come alive at night. I also think that I kissed it at some point for some reason.

I asked if it would tell God and Jesus that I said “hello,” and confided that if they could make me a psychic, I would like that.


I used to shake mannequins hands at malls, too, at that age and whisper that if they would wave that I wouldn’t tell anyone. The mannequins at Old Navy were the most detailed (they even had a little dog).

Just as I got out of my car to try to find my way to my Papa’s grave, a white vehicle pulled up. I also noticed there were men doing maintenance work in the cemetery like mowing and weed-eating (in Danville, it sounds more like “weed-eed,” and it runs together very quicklysounds very funny in the past tense“weed-eed-ed”). I wondered how often they might have to do thatfertile soil and all. They weed-eating the weeds that eat.

It is so embarrassing to not know where your loved one was left last, and it is very disappointing when you loved them so much. I marched in between aisles apologizing under my breath, and trying my hardest to walk where I assumed the feet of the deceased would be rather than the heads. I hate walking on graves.

I looked down a few times and occasionally saw baby shoes (I always think of that Hemingway poem) etched on the flat grave markers (this cemetery doesn’t have big, hulking headstones much to the chagrin of my unclehe has a plot there as well, but he always wanted a large headstone or even a mausoleum instead of the flat stuff). Usually those graves with the baby shoes were in between the graves of the baby’s parents. There were portraits on a few of the markers; men with wire glasses or leaning on a race-car. One grave had a full beer beside it. Plenty of veterans there as well. I tried my hardest to stay as far away from the one that had loose, red dirt and mulch on top. Some had the birth years and the death years, but the grave plot partner beside it only had the birth year; this made me wonder which one would be waiting for the other.

The more I walked up and down the hill, the hotter my face felt. I kept checking to see if the couple putting down flowers and taking pictures of the bouquets were looking at me. How good of a loved one can you even be if you can’t find the one you came to visit? I paused at one grave, the last name Handy because I felt like I needed to seem like I knew what I was doing. I told the Handys that I was sorry to intrude, but I hoped they were well and visited often (they had to have been recently because their flowers still had a lot of orange and yellow pigment unlike some of the poor sun bleached and faded graves). I was so sure we had been near the praying hands statue at the funeral.

How good of a loved one can you even be if you can’t find the one you came to visit?


While I waited for the couple to leave, I thought about going to try to find my Granny’s grave across the cemetery. My Papa was buried with his first wifethe one who had died in a car crash. I think she was pregnant then; he lost his only son before he married my Granny and essentially adopted five step-children and their families with them (eventually including me) and was dubbed “Papa.” That is no small featmy family is a filled with a wide cast of very strong characters. This also reminded me of Henry VIII and how he was buried beside Jane Seymourthe only one who had given him a son. I think the baby is buried between my Papa and his first wife, but now I can’t remember, and I certainly couldn’t fact-check because I could not find the grave. He just used to tell me how the baby came out with beautiful, jet-black hair.

My Granny is buried beside her daughter, my great-aunt, which seems right, but also odd as she and my Papa were married over 30 years until his death. My great-aunt died in a car accident when a drunk driver hit her on the way to church alongside her grandson; they put up two white crosses on the side of the road near my childhood home. We passed it every day on the way to elementary school. I asked Papa under my breath to give me a sign where he was. I expected a Mourning Dove to guide me (we watched birds together every day after school and Mourning Doves were one of his favorites) or some supernatural message, but he stayed silent. I felt like Saul trying to conjure up Samuel out of Sheol in a way; I wondered if Saul was embarrassed then too.

I decided I certainly didn’t know where my Papa was anymore, and I was growing more anxious because I was sure the couple on the other side of the cross thought me odd for rambling up and down the hill again, after I had left the Handys. I stopped beside another family and did a performative nodding, as if I had found what I was looking for. I thanked them for letting me stay there for a moment. I then told my Papa I loved him so much and that I missed him wherever he was, even if he was just the grass now. I apologized for not knowing instantly where to go. I then apologized to the people I had walked by (or on) by accident, and wished them a happy rest.

I think my parents bought plots in the same cemetery, but I did not want to see if they already had a grave marker with the last name and years of birth on it. That’s far too Ghost of Christmas Future for me. My grandma (not my Granny) is buried nearby, so I thought about trying to find her. A few weeks before, my grandpa had taken me with him to change out the rose he puts down every few weeks. He always cuts the crabgrass that reaches onto the stone with his pocket knife (grass just likes to swallow everything, doesn’t it?), says “Goodbye, prettiest girl,” and kisses his index and middle finger and touches it to the grave marker. Sometimes he prays there too, and sometimes he holds my pinky fingers while he prays and gives my hands a few squeezes throughout, and then one big squeeze at the end. My cousins always make fun of me because when we pray together, I always only give anyone my pinky fingers. This prayer at the grave always makes my throat get tight though.

When I was a much younger child, I used to try to pick off my own flowers from the vases on other people’s graves nearby or pick up the ones that had scattered and littered the ground at least to make my own little bouquet, but my grandpa would always fuss (of course rightfully so, but I didn’t think anyone would care if I took one tulip). He puts only one fake rose each time. He experimented with putting some sort of polyurethane on the rose to see if it would last longer in the sun (he is very “frugal” as he calls it), but I’m not sure if anything came of that.

I marched over to where I thought she would be, and couldn’t find that either. I was zero for two. I was going to be late for lunch, and I was really embarrassed at this point. I did a low wave and said goodbye, and whispered “I love you” before I left.