Keys To My Family’s Cemetery – Hannah Yerington

When we were young we took a tour of a cemetery in Washington. My little brother, all blond curls and scrunched face, refused to go in. But I never hesitated. I have never hesitated. No, not in cemeteries. I do not know what draws me to the cemeteries, I’d like to believe that it is more than the morbid. Old, overgrown cemeteries do not strike me as melancholy, simply quiet, peaceful. Unlike the rest of my waking life, cemeteries do not burst with stories, there are no loud voices shouting out snippets and questions. Here, voices are quiet, I only hear whispers. The dead have not lost their will to speak, they just do not believe in its necessity.

June 26th, 2015

Rexingen, Germany

On the way up, we stop at an ivy covered home, the very edges of windows and a door peaking out from its leafy cover. I walk out of the car and walk towards the door frame. They are yelling out directions to me, but I’m confused by this faerie home and by all that is to happen and I struggle to make out words. An older man, protruding belly leans out the upper window and continues their directions in German. Then English “The door. The side of the door.” I turn and reach for the keys hanging there, old and metal, heavy in my hands. They are spindly and cold and I hold to them tightly. I hold to them as if they belong to me, I hold them because I believe they do belong to me. To my family, my people. We continue driving and I consider letting others hold them, but I do not act. For now, these are mine. These are the keys to the last home my people have here, in this little town in Germany.

The cemetery is marked by an arch and tall trees. I struggle to open the gate, and when it does open there is a large creak. I am entering a grand place where the people do not speak but history looms heavy. “Do you want to see all your family?” They ask. We nod. They have maps and we weave through tombs, through headstones, placing rocks on each name. Here is your great grandmother. Here is your 4th great uncle. He was a butcher. She was a good mother. He was a brit malah. There lies the war hero.

These names, a rock on each stone. We do not place flowers. My people do not place flowers on the tombs of those lost, it is too impermanent, too gaudy. What do these rocks mean? I have never really known. Are we people of rocks? Did we rise from the earth and to the earth we’ll return? I find ones that fit my palm right, this journey has become one of holding. Nettles sting my feet and I find it ironic that even now, there is pain in this beauty.

The cemetery begins where my people end, the years on the stones seem to just stop. But walking further back, my family name reaches all the way to the 1600’s and I wonder at what point does blood stretch so far one can not claim relationship. These are still my ancestors, yet our lives could not be more different. Would they really claim me as kin?

I have so many questions about this plot of land, about these stones, these trees, the sun that swims lightly through this grass. But they are not many answers here. So I must content myself to walk slowly, to touch stones and breath deeply. There is peace here, as if the cemetery acknowledges but will not give in to the darkness that once stood. This is a museum, this is sacred ground. History can never fully tarnish what is holy. I pray to myself, to the One I believes hears me. But I don’t know what I’m praying or why. I just know that I am at a place that is somehow wrapped into my being, to one of the last homes of ancestors who have long since left this earth.

I do not know what draws me to cemeteries. But here there is a strange sense of home. Here I do not stay in melancholy. The grounds I walk ones do not burst with stories, there are no loud voices shouting out snippets and questions. Here, voices are quiet, I only hear whispers. My family have not lost their will to speak. But as I walk out, words are pointed out to me, Hebrew on a tree. It reads “We are leaving for Israel.” A message left by survivors, a message carved on their holy ground, on the one land that belongs to them alone. And only then do I understand that cemeteries are not quiet because here stories are laid to rest. Cemeteries are quiet because their stories continue elsewhere. We are their stories.





Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.