The oldest stones, set on highest ground,
are also most impressive–an obelisk tall and confident,
a rugged faux-bark cross, elaborate scrolls and pillars,
the raised borders popular a century or two ago
but now discouraged because they impede a reaper
of a different sort–the groundskeeper’s power mower.
Around those cluster the still-old but less optimistic
monuments to people who lived just before my time,
those I never knew but whose names I recognize from
the oldfolks’ stories; when I was a child, my elderly
great-aunt, who didn’t drive, would have someone
bring her with her garden tools every couple of months
so she could tend her people’s graves, hoeing and weeding;
back then the place was still half-empty, and it was hard
to imagine enough local deaths to fill it. Slowly, though,
the vacant slots have filled with my elders, the church
ladies and storekeepers, stalwart citizens and local eccentrics,
and those who aren’t missed all that much to tell the truth,
bless their hearts, who populate my memories.
It would require no metaphor to say
that things have gone downhill from there, the newer markers
different–shinier but more uniform–tumbling down the grassy
slope toward the river, a good number of them my relatives,
nearly all people I knew in past decades. Not much room left
under the flagstaff and wooden crosses erected in more recent times,
in an attempt to reassert some values perceived to have faded,
but the crosses will rot long before the stones fall, and
the flag tatters and fades, requiring continual replacement.
What will happen when the last plot is claimed, the last stone
laid in the last row of this familiar graveyard? How long
will people remember, still come to place their plastic flowers here,
and where will others dig the holes for them?
T. Allen Culpepper