My Letter


Dear Friends,

"I don't do death," I'd say to myself as I would roam through Oahu Cemetery doing historical research as a self-assured 19 year old. At 19 the end is far down the road for most of us. I'd walk down the rows of graves catching a glimpse of the past and of those who lived in it.

Cemeteries symbolized places of life to me, even then.

But at that point I had only experienced the death of someone close to me once. My speech therapist, Pat McIntyre, died of lung cancer in 1986, when I was 11. I was in math class when I heard the news. At her Memorial Service her son shared the words of comfort that many of us have heard before.

Death is like a ship. While we are sad to see the people on the ship leave us, we must remember how happy the folks on the distant shore will be when the ship arrives there.

That stayed with me all these years. At 21, 1 month before my college graduation, my beloved "gram" died. So close to finishing school in Hawaii, my parents suggested I stay there instead of making the trek home to IL. So at the hour of her funeral I sat on Kailua Beach watching the waves roll in, thinking about that distant shore.

So like the families I serve at Oakwood, I too have felt the sting of death. I have said goodbye, cried at funerals of loved ones, and held the hand of a dying friend. I've struggled (and continue to) with what to say at these challenging times.

I'm learning that you can't choose "not to do death." Death doesn't give you a choice.

As I stand at each of Oakwood's graveside services, I, too, benefit from the clergy/celebrant/speaker's words. It helps me to remember my family and friends who have left us.

I hear words such as, "Well done good and faithful servant" and I quietly welcome the deceased into our fold and keep their family in my heart.

After 7 years I sometimes fear that I don't feel sadness quite the same as I used to, since I see it all the time. Just when I think I've become complacent to the sadness that death and dying bring, death will remind me that my feelings aren't completely gone.

Death stops for no one, not even the woman who stands at the edge of each funeral who often hides her tears behind her black sunglasses.

I've never been good at saying good-bye, from "see ya later" to boarding a plane and hugging my parents tight. I would cry leaving my great-grandparents' house each summer.

Maybe I was afraid it would be our last goodbye. I don't know.

As the children's book Cry Heart But Never Break reminds us "What would life be worth if there was no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained?"

So I'll continue to face death until it's my time to cross to the distant shore. And maybe then, to quote Delta Rae, I'll "Dance in the Graveyard."


Robin Simonton

Robin Simonton, Cemeterian

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko