How to Run a Cemetery

By Ann Thomas, 26 May 2023
Old grave lit by sunlight, covered in leaves in overgrow cemetery
Image: Kyle Larivee/Unsplash


A graveyard is a place where people laugh, feud, suffer – and where they can find a grace that crosses the border between worlds.

“These two? These are the ones we want!” The woman, with a twirl of her wrists and a sweeping motion of her slender arms, approximated through her gesture the area she and her husband had settled on. It was a flourish more fitting for a game show than two graves. He nodded to his wife in confirmation, participating via cell phone from their son’s car on the cemetery’s driveway, where he sat, too weak to get out. The labor exerted in his simple nod was a sobering contrast to the vivacity of his wife, also in her seventies.

Gathered around their daughter’s cell phone, we documented their arrangements, under the shade of the thick timber that creeps yearly closer to our platted graves. The sparse grass growing in filtered sun where we stood was a fair trade for goldfinches and orioles nesting nearby, and bluebirds enticed to take up residence in little boxes on the ravine’s perimeter. It was too perfect a spring day to lose minutes doing the paperwork in an office. We were almost finished, when they had one more question.

“Shall we see if we fit?”

To my wonder, families with the most tragic circumstances were among my most grace-filled encounters, those who found themselves walking with me unexpectedly. Parents lost children, wives and husbands were struck with the unforeseen death of a young spouse, immigrants dealt with the realization that longed-for reunions won’t happen this side of life, illness progressed more rapidly than anticipated.

Many regard a cemetery as a thin place, a liminal space where the veil between us and eternity is almost transparent. But while the ground is consecrated, set aside for a sacred purpose, it is not the physical location itself that precipitates such grace. It is of no consequence how narrow a margin lies between life and death. Only God’s love creates communion through space and time. That was the only thing that could be sustaining some of these families, and it was utterly humbling to witness.

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Ann Thomas is a writer and poet whose work has appeared in Image, Forma, and St. Austin Review. She is the managing editor of Dappled Things, and lives with her husband and five children in Iowa City, Iowa.

With thanks to Plough, an independent publisher of books on faith, society, and the spiritual life, where this article originally appeared.


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