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Mack Williams: Another homecoming at Saint Paul’s

I sang again at the Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church Homecoming on Sunday, Sept. 13. My friend Rita and I arrived early for practice with organist Johnsie Taylor. Afterwards, and before service, we wandered through the Saint Paul’s cemetery once more.

Besides being a schoolteacher, Rita is a professional genealogist and is drawn to cemeteries because of that work. (I like them because they are melancholy.)

I wrote before of a grave seen there in my youth, upon which a bark-less, heavily “gnarled” tree had grown. A few years ago, I noticed its above-ground absence, but didn’t take time to look for remains.

This time, not specifically seeking, I stumbled across it (well, not literally “stumbled”; since it is a cemetery, I was watching my step). There, on (and in) the ground was a tree stump only about 5 inches in width. In its former, living “wholeness,” the tree’s strange, curving branches had frightened me as a child. Its present remains are testament to “fear about nothing.”

The stones of that grave still lie in the same “slant” given them by the tree’s roots. The stump is now the tree’s gravestone.

Speaking of “stone,” the old “science kid” has to get in the science lesson for the day. Tree stumps and limbs stay around so long before rotting that if covered in a mudslide or volcanic ash, their own “long-lastingness” maximizes the chance for dissolved minerals in the ground water to “petrify” them.

Looking at that relatively narrow, gray-black stump, I was reminded that its tree-ring timeline began before my beginning, then ended most likely sometime during my early adulthood. This little “slice of life” represented the entirety of the tree’s existence, and a respectable portion of mine.

In the case of the older slate tombstones, layers of that sedimentary rock seem desirous of becoming sediment again, “softened up” by years of rain, snow, cold and heat. On several, nothing was decipherable. A blank piece of tombstone-rubbing paper rubbed there would have yielded only a homogenous gray (similar to that seen when turning on a TV in the wee hours during the station’s old, “sign-off” days).

If the layer representing the tablet’s deepest point of informational carving is gone, a “clean slate” is provided again.

Just as flesh “sloughs off” in death, so had these layers of slate “slipped away.”

The yellowed paper of church records seems to have done a better job of cemetery record keeping than some stones (that paper, most likely now on “disc”).

I had mentioned in a previous column about acid-producing lichens eroding names and dates “meant to last,” but on one stone they were helping.

Mustard-color letters stood out, still readable as a name. This variety of lichen seemed to prefer only the curved, inside depths of carved letters and numbers to the stone’s flatter surface. In addition to serving as a living “highlighter,” their deposited acid had taken up where the long-ago (probably long-dead) stone mason had left off, continuing to carve even deeper.

My Aunt Laudis (Lotus) liked to collect salt and pepper shakers, and hers was a formidable assembly in the shelves of her kitchen (“staples” evidently stored elsewhere). In my life, I’ve collected butterflies, rocks, fossils and carnivorous plants.

Laid out before Rita and me, in long parallel rows was a “collection” of the Christians of a particular place over time, or rather the remains representing those who were formerly human, but forever Christian.

The skeletons of those interred prior to the advent of the concrete vault had most likely become detached, in many cases probably only a portion remaining. But each set of those disarticulated bones once had a voice to “articulate” the words and song of the Lutheran Liturgy, which has gradually changed over time (in my youth, the “Red Book”).

Just now, I am thinking about my departed mother’s beautiful voice in the congregation, and the beautiful voices of former choristers and soloists of Saint Paul’s choir.

It is highly unlikely that anyone in his right mind “and soul” would have been standing out in Saint Paul’s cemetery during last Sunday’s Homecoming service, passing up a chance to hear Pastor Floyd W. Bost.

But if they had, they might have experienced a subtle, “sacred” phenomenon of sound. The human ear would hear the words and music straight-on, exuding outward through church walls and even closed windows. But just imagine the existence of some micro, beneath-the-threshold-of-reception reverberation when that sound met the outside, embedded, stone-carved “sounding boards,” some old, some new, some tilted, some slumped, a few fragmented.

Aging on, the graves, their contents and their markers languidly morph into soil; but the radiating words and songs sound fresh forever.

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