A man pulled up in a white SUV and got out at a fresh grave. There was a funeral tent that covered both the grave and the collection of flowers that were obviously new.
The man didn’t look at me and didn’t seem to pay attention to anything else. His suit was what we might have once called his “Sunday best.” He looked somber and his only thoughts seemed to focus on a hole in the dirt where a loved one had been placed to rest today.
All of as sudden, I felt as though I was intruding just by being in the cemetery. I was there to take sunset photos, but this stark hill suddenly seemed more like a sanctuary or at least sacred ground.
I was about a hundred feet from the man and I remained quiet and still. After he stood next to the grave for a few minutes, he got back into his SUV and slowly drove off. As I stood there in the stillness — as it got darker and darker — I found myself disturbed that I had no idea whose body had been laid to rest in that hole.
And that felt completely wrong.
Did that man bury his mother earlier today? Or was it his son? His wife? His brother? I’ll never know.
I couldn’t figure out why this felt so wrong — that I didn’t know who these people were — but then it hit me. The anonymity of the people from this funeral — the living and the dead — were symptomatic of the loss of community which I find so disturbing today.
I live about a mile and a half from this cemetery. A couple of generations ago, a funeral at the neighborhood cemetery would have been news. We would have all known when this person died. We would have known some of the family members who were affected.
We might have gone to school or church with the person who died, but it’s even more likely that we would have somehow known some of the survivors.
We might have gone to the home of the family to drop off food or to offer to take care of children. We would have checked with the survivors in appropriate ways to see if we could help. Even if we hadn’t been close to the dead person or to the survivors — even if we hadn’t really liked them — we would have done it anyway.
We did that because it was the right thing to do — because we were all part of a community.
Instead, we sit in neighborhoods where we mostly don’t know one another. We drive down the streets of our neighborhoods past homes of people we will never meet. We move away from one another without batting an eye — and often without saying goodbye. We know people on the other side of the world better than we know the people who live around us.
The longer I live, the more I am vaguely aware that real community is slowly dying — and the more I realize how much I miss something that I’ve rarely experienced.
As I grew up, we moved from city to city as my father’s job transferred him with each promotion. Were the opportunities worth it? I don’t know. Maybe. But I feel as though we have unconsciously surrendered the communities we once shared — in the name of chasing better opportunities — without ever understanding what we were losing.
As I finally left the cemetery this evening, I felt a sense of loss and grief, not about the person who had been buried today, but about my own sense of lost community. But there was something good in this as well.
In the short minutes that I watched a man at a grave, I was given a powerful glimpse — a reminder — that community is about life and death. It’s about experiencing everything between those two extremes.
Community is about living and dying and loving — together as an extended family.