by Michael Hanby

We bought burial plots for our family vacation this year. It was the undisputed highlight of our annual trip home to the small town in the Ozarks of Northern Arkansas where my wife and I grew up. Determining the precise coordinates for one’s eternal resting place is more complicated than it sounds, at least when it involves two families, now joined by marriage, who have lived side by side on the same inconspicuous corner of the earth since the middle of the nineteenth century and a “system” of record keeping not much more recent. 

The negotiations required several visits to the town cemetery with my wife, my father, my sister, and sister-in-law in various combinations, the length of the excursion depending on the composition of the expeditionary party. The trips with my dad were probably the longest. He is moving a little slower these days and needs to rest in the shade where we cannot but linger over the history, memories at once personal and collective, inscribed in stone before us. My great-grandparents and most of their ten children are buried in the older, shaded part of the cemetery, with their descendants dispersed around the grounds under other names. They lie surrounded by other old families, including my wife’s. They founded one of the area’s first schools, Clarke’s Academy, which once taught Greek and Latin to hill folk. Some of these families have dissipated or died out; others are barely hanging on. 

There is the founder of the town bank that still boasts how it never closed during the Great Depression. There is the family that ran the Mercantile, one of two places besides the Sears catalogue where we could buy jeans and sweatshirts, coats, and gloves, overalls and cowboy hats, before the arrival of the first Walmart stores. The doctor who cared for generations of farmers and townspeople lies nearby along with his family. I was terrified of him as a child, and I don’t remember him ever saying much except “hrrmph,” at a pitch somewhere between a grunt and a growl. But I do remember him showing up at our house when both my parents were bedridden with the flu and meeting us at the emergency room in his pajamas in the middle of the night during one of my desperate bouts with the croup. In his later years, he would “forget” to bill people and just wander out of the examination room without a word, leaving you to discover for yourself that the appointment was over. 

A little to the north is the grocer who served the city for decades as mayor and the man from the gas station who did triple duty as the town’s Santa Claus, fire chief, and cook. He was known to everybody as Happy; I was nearly an adult before I learned that his real name was Arnold. Happy’s biscuits and gravy were legendary among volunteer firemen and boys lucky enough to be invited to Saturday morning “fire practice,” which seemed to be mostly a carryover from early morning coffee during the week at the bowling alley cafe where I would go with my dad before school. Right next to my grandparents is the gravestone for the hero of the football state runners-up in 1977, who was killed in a car accident just after he went off to college. Old-timers still say that he was the hardest hitter they’ve ever seen, though he probably weighed all of one-hundred forty pounds. They interrupted our junior high football practice on an early October morning in 1979 to break the news that sent the entire town into mourning. 

There are many souls laid to rest here that I have not thought about in years; others I did not know had died. The very stones seem to cry out for the lore that only my father and a few others now possess, and he is only too happy to oblige. There were the old friends who served in Korea together, one of whom became president of the bank after the war; they would joke about the time they were messing around drunk in their tent and one accidentally got shot. There was one distant uncle who was killed in a boiler accident and another who dropped dead crossing the railroad track with my grandfather when he was a boy. And there was the time, back when the town’s sons returned home from college or the army to raise their families and serve the place that reared them, that Dad and the other young volunteer firemen were called away from a Saturday night party to save a burning barn. They all rushed to the scene only to discover that not one of them had thought to go by the station and get the firetruck. They just stood helplessly beside the road and watched it burn. 

The stories told by my wife’s side of the family are also part of our collective history, so I already know them well. The view of Pension Mountain to the south is roughly the same from here as from her grandparent’s home, next door to the Academy, about a half mile away. We spent many happy summer evenings out in the yard there in the first years of our marriage. Her mother was a little girl in 1942 when the tornado that killed thirty people roared up the valley from the mountain, tore through their yard, destroyed their home, and killed the neighbors on either side. Her family survived by taking refuge under the kitchen table when they saw they were too late to make it across the yard to the storm cellar. They lived in a chicken coop for six weeks while Granddad prepared to ship off to the Pacific and they sought another place to stay. A mile to the north, the little bungalow where my father lived was reduced to matchsticks, but my grandfather had taken his young family with him to California when he went off to work in the shipyards. With my dormant curiosity about that era rekindled, I returned home to discover a newsreel about the disaster that shows both sets of ruins. None of us knew this footage existed, and I have dissected every frame. I could hardly have been more astonished to discover moving pictures of Lincoln.

Fortunately, both of our families are buried on the same side of the gravel lane that bisects the cemetery. Our grandparents’ graves are within sight of each other. Our grandmothers were good friends and fierce rivals at golf and bridge, so I suppose it’s fitting that they can keep an eye on each other. Our own families have outgrown the existing family plots, which were on the northwestern edge of the cemetery when we buried our grandparents. Now they are nearer the middle. Is there still room for us nearby? Can we somehow position ourselves between them and still form some kind of contiguous strand amongst ourselves? Or will we have to move still further north to the newer area, near the dumpster in the corner and the football stadium next door? 

I played high school football when, like going off to war, it was still a civic obligation for able-bodied young men. My senior year we beat the twice-defending state champs in the playoffs, setting up a semi-final showdown against the Bulldogs of Earle, a small town in the Delta near Memphis and about six hours away by bus. The winner would advance to the championship game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, where the Razorbacks played. We were hoping for the opportunity to avenge our town’s humiliation on that same field seven years earlier, but we were defeated by the citizens of Earle between the doors of the bus and the gates to the field. Well, them and the great Dennis Forrest. 

Crittenden County, where Earle was located, was home to some of the worst atrocities of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. It had been the scene of the so-called “Earle Race Riot” in 1970 when a group of armed whites attacked a civil rights march protesting the failure to desegregate. Tensions between the new black majority and the whites who remained behind persisted into the 1980s. Interracial fights in the schools were not uncommon.

Of course, we were oblivious to all this, but I can imagine the good people of Earle relished the opportunity to welcome an all-white team down from the hills. And welcome us they did. As our bus pulled in at sundown, we were greeted in the parking lot by what seemed like the whole town, a sea of black faces, maybe two thousand people. They formed a long tunnel from the door of the bus all the way to the field, chanting “Dogs on your ass, Dogs on your ass, Chomp! Chomp!” as we passed through. It was all a bit too much for a bunch of hillbilly kids who had hardly left Carroll County. 

Black prisoners on lease from the prison farms down south had picked and blasted their way through the mountains of western Carroll County in the 1920s to build the rugged highway west of nearby Eureka Springs. The small community of African Americans that had thrived in Eureka during its heyday as a spa town had all but vanished by the 1930s. It is not clear whether this was due to the collapse of elixir tourism, which caused Eureka to lose about half of its population in a very short span of time, or the paroxysm of Klan activity in that era, which seems mostly to have been concerned with policing “no account” whites and opposing the strike that threatened the area’s economic lifeline, the new Missouri and North Arkansas Railway.

Virtually no black people live up there now, though their ghosts remain. They haunted our big showdown with Earle, turning us into zombies as we passed through that tunnel. Dennis Forrest ran over, around, and through us, thus ending the glory days of Bobcat football, and leaving us with nothing but an interminable argument with the guys from the 1977 runners-up about which was really the best team in town history. 

As I stand in the northwest corner of the cemetery gazing across the fence at the stadium, two thoughts occur to me almost simultaneously. I would like to find Dennis Forrest someday and buy him a beer. And the idea of resting forever in the shadows of Bobcat Stadium doesn’t seem all that bad. But Friday Night Lights is not my wife’s idea of eternity, and so we persist with our questions. 

Getting answers means paying a visit to Bobby. In earlier times Bobby would have been called an undertaker. Now he is the director of the funeral home founded by his great grandfather. It sits across the street from the lumber yard founded by my great-grandfather, itself another barely living vestige of old times. His grandfather had sawmills in the mountains down near Carrollton, which was the county seat then but is little more than a spot in the road now. The Yankees burned the mill during the Civil War but spared the house, which finally burned of its own accord just a few years ago, apparently because “Granddad” and the Union commander were both Freemasons. The rocky Ozark terrain, like the Appalachians, did not support plantation style agriculture. Records show that in 1860 there were three-hundred thirty slaves among the county’s nine thousand residents. Pro-Confederacy sentiment was therefore not as unanimous here in the border region as it was down south. Yet the story has it that the mill was making rifle stocks for the Confederate garrison headquartered in Fayetteville. Whether this is true, or whether this is the kind of legend that used to be common among southern families, like kinship with Robert E. Lee or Elizabeth Warren’s “high cheekbones,” I have no way of knowing. 

Bobby’s grandfather, Charles Nelson, buried my grandfather when he was just ten years older than I am now. I was in high school. It seemed like half the town turned out for the funeral. My grandfather could be a hard man. He once spent several nights sleeping on the ground under one of his lumber trucks with a shotgun, trying to catch a thief who had been stealing gas. The men who worked for him were hard men too, lumber hands, and not given to showing emotions other than orneriness. One of them, called Rodney, often spent weekend nights in jail for “hell-raisin’” in his younger days. Come Monday morning, my grandfather would go fetch him out so he could drive the lumber truck. I don’t know what these men thought of their jobs, and I am sure they were justly dissatisfied with their wages. But I watched them file past his coffin with mist in their eyes, and I know they loved my grandfather and would have fought for him—just as I’m sure they sometimes cursed him. Rodney told me he’d nearly done it once or twice. 

Mr. Nelson made a point of driving the funeral car through the town square, even though it was a little out of the way, so that my family could see the flag flying at half-mast over the courthouse. It is an image that I will take to my own grave, and it moves me to this day. Bobby was a few years behind me in school and looks to be in pretty good shape, so there is a decent chance he could bury me someday. I will not receive the same treatment. I did not stay to join the fire department, run for mayor, or lend my sons to the defense of the town’s honor on the football field. I have not contributed my share to the town’s legends or even to its grudges; nor have I performed the numberless mundane acts of kindness and generosity that pass between friends and neighbors tethered together over the course of many lifetimes. It will be enough that there is still a place for me here. 

I expected Bobby to pull up a map of the cemetery on his laptop. Instead, he pulled out three very old books, tattered and taped together. They contained handwritten entries for every gravesite in the cemetery, some of them in his great-grandfather’s hand. He lets me look through its pages, and it occurs to me that I am holding the entire history of my home in my hands. It is a story that was always unknown to the rest of the world, only to God and a few surviving hillbilly gentry. 

I suppose a lot of us are thinking about mortality these days, and the memento mori has always been at the heart of the philosophical and religious life that I try, mostly unsuccessfully, to lead. “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” Still, there is nothing quite like a visit to one’s own grave to revive that memory, and it is somehow comforting to be surrounded there by so many familiar names and to think that there is one, fixed, immovable place on the earth to which I can always return. I realize what a privilege it is to be from somewhere, even if it is nowhere. 

But there is something about seeing so many of “my people” and so much of my own youth laid to rest together in one place, something about seeing its history bound up in these old books, that leads me to think about my own death in the context of a larger story and larger questions. I think about what it has meant to know and be known in a place like this and what it will mean when its story, and those like it, come to an end. I think about the time when all fixed places are gone. 

That time is coming soon, and for many it has come already. So many of my friends, though already two-thirds aged like myself, seem to have no idea where they will be buried. I presume this is because they have no “home,” no place into which they were received and to which they belong, that they did not make themselves and that will therefore survive them. The memories of such human things and of an America that no longer exists are still vivid enough that they recognize this as a loss, but the homelessness we are bequeathing to our children will likely leave them bereft of even this experience of loss. I say “we” because I know that my children and theirs will not be exempt from this. Many of the memories that we savored in the shade of the cemetery will leave the earth forever when my father’s generation finally passes. My children think of Arkansas as their home, and I am grateful for that, though they have never lived here. We try to teach them what their family has meant to this place and what it means to them, but it cannot be theirs in the way that it was ours. These stones will be mute when it is their turn to walk here. The future history of this place, which depends almost entirely on the good favor of Walmart and Tyson, will almost certainly be told in Spanish. This is not a complaint about immigration, which has been ongoing and frictionless for a long time and has undoubtedly enriched and prolonged the life of the area. It is rather an acknowledgment of the inevitable fact of time. The ghostly memory of that African-American community in Eureka is hardly a memory at all. The Osage and Cherokee who preceded us here have nobody to remember them. Within a generation or two there will be nobody to remember us either. 

I often think of home when critics of my political writing accuse me of hating America. It is as if America were an idea and not a place, and patriotism an adherence to a philosophy and not love for the people whom you’ve known and the roads on which you learned to drive. It strikes me as a patriotism of the homeless, thin and abstract, though I recognize that it has inspired people to do great deeds on behalf of places they have never visited and people they did not know. 

But lately I think of home when I think of the self-hatred that is being foisted upon us, in many ways the mirror image of a patriotism reduced to ideology. The call for a deeper reckoning about the meaning of America is right and just, but there is a nihilistic impulse here, a rebellion against being itself, that is both false and contrary to natural human affection. I could not accede to this impulse without renouncing my existence, and I could not renounce my existence without denying the real beauty and grace of the place, the people, and the events that gave me life—things I should love—which are no less real and no less grace-filled for being politically or historically tainted or insignificant to the rest of the world. And I can’t help but wonder whether our nihilism would be so wide and so deep if our roots were not so shallow. Surely there is a more than accidental relationship between our present frenzy to destroy our historical, cultural, and even natural origins and the fact that most of us will die and be laid to rest much as we have lived, among strangers. 

This isolation only reinforces the illusion that we are made rather than born, that we can therefore become the authors of our own existence, making—or unmaking—ourselves, our past, and our future. Americans are not practiced in the art of memento mori, and many have observed that modern American life is predicated on the frenetic attempt to deny death. Yet it seems to me that the denial of death is deeply intertwined with the denial of birth, the denial that our lives are something we first receive. How can we know that our lives are given to us, that we belong to something that precedes us, something that we owe, if we have no real experience of home? And how can we really remember that we are dust, that all our striving and all our folly will someday come to naught, if we give no thought to the dust to which we shall return? 

The point is not that we are condemned to meaningless lives, devoid of interior drama and depth—just the opposite. The amazing thing about the stories entombed in this cemetery, the thing that amazes me after all these years about the tribute to my grandfather, is that one story or one event can be so intense, so rich in meaning to some and insignificant or even invisible to the eyes of the world. The native peoples left no trace save for the arrowheads that farmers used to find in the river bottoms, yet they undoubtedly raised families, laughed at stories, and mourned their dead just as we have. Surely this rich interior horizon is a universal feature of the human condition. Perhaps, as Péguy suggested, even God marvels at the heart of man:

Which is what is most profound in the world.
The created world.
So profound it is impenetrable to all eyes.
Except my own.

I also do not wish to give the impression that I am sentimentalizing small-town life, which can be cruel and unforgiving to outsiders and insiders alike. It can be an enormous burden to discover, before you are able to make a name for yourself, that your name already has a meaning. I have known people who were crushed by it. I understand very well the desire to become a stranger and to make your own name, and I understand why some who make their name with a pen or a keyboard are tempted to turn and write with condescension and disdain about the people they’ve left behind. It is a well-worn genre. Had I written of home in my twenties or thirties I have little doubt that I would have succumbed to this temptation. 

I also do not wish to whitewash history in a bath of nostalgia. The Trail of Tears runs near here. My mother’s family settled across the border in Oklahoma prior to statehood. The enormous family Bible that we inherited after the death of my maternal grandfather, the kind that Protestant families used to display in their living rooms, records the birth of his brothers and sisters in “Indian Territory”—right next to the “Family Temperance Pledge” that nobody managed to sign. I know that the disappearance of the Osage and the Cherokee from these regions was not simply the work of time, like wind and rain erasing the names from a limestone grave marker. It was the work of men, a deed that ripples across centuries. I do not know in any detail what role my forebears on either side of the border may have played in this deed or in America’s other great original sin. But I am not so naïve to think they played no part. And I accept the point advanced by critical race theorists—not to mention the doctrine of original sin—that we participate in that deed in some way by our very existence. I do not know how any American who looks honestly at our history can fail to be ambivalent about what we are and how we came to be, especially those of us who do come from somewhere and have been given a history. We of all people should understand that the most violent act that human beings can commit against one another is not to deprive them of some abstract freedom but to deny them the concrete reality of a home and a history. We who are heirs to this deed cannot claim certain confidence that we have a right to be here. 

But that’s the surprising thing about human existence. It’s not so much a matter of right as a matter of grace. That’s the difference between being born, being received into being, and being made. Our lives are circumscribed by times, people, and places that we do not choose. We are named by others. We often experience these limits as burdens, but they denote the more primordial truth that our existence is a gift we receive entirely from without, by surprise, as it were. We can only apprehend this from a perspective of ontological gratitude; that is, viewing our history from within as a gift and not just from without as a story of systems, forces, and striving. Only from this perspective can we really begin to approximate the whole truth about ourselves, much less hope that our attempt to shoulder the burden of our history might amount to something in the face of what we do not make and cannot fix. 

As I see it, the fundamental problem with “anti-” movements such as Black Lives Matter is not that they are historically false per se, or even that their proposed remedies such as reparations are too extreme to contemplate, though making such a thing practicable without destroying the country would seem to require more honestly and good will on all sides than we can hope for under conditions of disintegration. It is rather that they end up falsifying history by elevating a historical truth and a real historical injustice into a brittle, two-dimensional ontology. This is the severest kind of Calvinism, a Calvinism of the devil with no escape and no hope for redemption. It is false and humanly disastrous. Accepting it would require us to turn a blind eye to all that is still real and beautiful and humane in this broken world of ours and to suppress all true human questions except one. 

However hard we try to destroy our common life or deny our common nature and common Father, we have a common destiny. It arrives like a thief in the night and makes our lives seem like a vapor. Everyone is perfectly equal in the graveyard and perfectly dead. This destiny and the questions it forces upon us are inescapable irrespective of whether we are willing to think about them. The proper response to Black Lives Matter is not the facile assertion that all lives matter, but the more troubling question of why any lives matter, since all are destined for oblivion. 

The hours spent in the graveyard with my family put me in mind of  another, more famous graveyard scene. I often think of Our Town when thinking about our town, and I cannot read or see a performance of Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece without thinking of home, and not just because of the many parallels between my hometown and the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The questions contemplated by this play, though refracted through a moment in the history of an insignificant little place, are universal, indeed eternal in scope. The sparse stage direction is one clue to Wilder’s transcendent ambitions; another is the setting of the action revealed on the address of an envelope at the end of the first act, which does not stop at “Grover’s Corners, Sutton County New Hampshire, the United States of America,” but expands sub specie aeternitatis to include the “Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” 

The dramatic tension in the play arises from the juxtaposition of this transcendent perspective and the quiet intensity of the particular stories, unknown to the rest of the world, unfolding vividly before us. This is first presented in the contrast between the “view from within,” which we glimpse in the intimate details of the characters’ lives, and the “view from without,” represented by the college professor, the newspaper editor, and the stage manager, who together provide “the facts about everybody” and a “scientific account” of the area’s history. The contrast reveals the essential poverty of the “outside view” and subtly mocks its pretensions to see into the heart of reality from a transcendent vantage. And yet, the very sterility of this knowledge, the fact that the interior drama lived by the generations that preceded us and by those who surround it is inaccessible, impenetrable, and evanescent, calls into question whether the drama finally has any meaning at all.

The tension reaches its climax in the play’s final act. The stage manager’s opening monologue offers a brief tour of the cemetery grounds and a window into the town’s history, much like Bobby’s old books. The latest chapter of this story, the occasion for the scene, is the funeral for young Emily Webb. We have followed her since she was a girl: from her adolescent insecurity about her beauty, to her awkward courtship with the neighbor boy, George Gibbs, and to their eventual wedding. Emily has died giving birth to their second child, leaving George, her family, and Grover’s Corners devastated. The town’s deceased have gathered in a kind of melancholic limbo invisible to the mourners in their midst to receive Emily into their number. Emily, not quite “weaned away from earth,” prevails against her mother-in-law’s advice and wins the opportunity to relive just one ordinary day—her twelfth birthday—with the understanding she has already begun to acquire in her passing. The weight and beauty of this ordinary moment, previously shielded from her by ignorance and finitude, nearly crushes her. As everyone in the house is rushing to get ready for school, she pleads with her harried mother to stop and really look at her. She mourns the coming loss of her mother’s youthful beauty and the swift passage of so much wasted time. Despondent because she “can’t look at everything hard enough,” she eagerly returns to take up her place among the dead. It is here that Wilder gives nihilism its voice in the character of Simon Stimson, organist at the Congregational Church, whose troubles have been hinted at here and there throughout the play. We are left to conjecture about his death. For Simon, Emily’s experience confirms that living is nothing more than moving about in a cloud of “ignorance and blindness,” wasting oneself and trampling upon others. All burden, we might say, and no gift.

The play offers no pious platitudes to resolve the tension or to wipe away the sense of loss. Emily’s essential discovery about our lives in time, that “all that was going on and we never noticed,” is full of both melancholy and mercy and suggests that our finitude itself is a grace as well as a limit. Wilder does not deny Simon a share of the truth, but he does insist, through the scolding voice of Mrs. Gibbs, that “that ain’t the whole truth and you know it.” We know this ain’t the whole truth, precisely because Wilder has transmuted the “view from within” into a “view from above” that does see into the heart of things, a view that allows us a glimpse, if we “look at everything hard enough,” at what the stage manager tells us we all already know: “That something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.” The play is not optimistic that we willlook this hard. “Saints and poets maybe” glimpse it. But Mrs. Gibbs’s final words to Emily are words of resignation: “No dear. They do not understand.” Yet the real hope derives from the fact that there is something to be understood, something that “has to do with human beings,” a Truth in which we are beheld, even in our oblivion. 

Wilder could assume that we all know this because he could presume that his audience would themselves know the kind of humane experiences that make the hope of Our Town intelligible. But do we, who have denied ourselves these experiences, really know this any longer? Is anything eternal for us except maybe the struggle against oppression, the will to power, or scientific progress? Do we who try desperately to forget that we are dust believe that there is an eternal something that remembers us and mocks all the pseudo-eternities that we manufacture for ourselves? It seems impossible to “look hard enough” at all this while simultaneously destroying the things we have been given to see. And yet we have no choice but to look again, to try to glimpse some of what was going on that we never noticed, if we are not to deprive ourselves and our children of the one fixed, immovable point on the earth that makes the burden of history bearable.

To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.