A visit to the cemetery

Date Published: 
January, 2006
Original Author: 
Todd Van Beck
A S Turner and Sons, Decatur, Georgia
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2006

The plane started down the runway at about 6:30 p.m., leaving Epply Airfield in Omaha for the two-and-a-half-hour flight back to my world. I had spent a long weekend visiting my hometown in Iowa to celebrate by father's 80-something birthday.

Iowa in October is a tray of sensations brazenly forced on you. The climate is changing in dramatic ways, the greens of the summer turning quickly into the gold and browns of harvest season, and everywhere one travels, the ancient activity of bringing in the crops is present. Morning, noon and night, the farmers go back and forth across the field, with their impressive machines and take from Mother Earth more than enough foodstuffs to feed the world.

Growing up in the agrarian world is much like being a member of a Masonic Lodge—if you are an outsider, the entire proceedings are a secret and a mystery. I have never encountered a city person who understood the secret handshake of the farmer.

On my visits to my home state, I always take the time to drive through the countryside. I visit certain places which hold memories for me alone; no one else cares about or knows of these places, and that is OK, for to explain their significance takes way too much time, and is really nobody's business except mine.

These spots are mine, and no one can pollute them or change them or destroy them. Thus my visits back home to Iowa are not just a duty call on family, or a business trip or even a reunion, today they are primarily a spiritual renewal. They are an occasion to jump-start my attitude, to renew the very visceral makeup of my DNA by sights, sounds and sensations from 1,001 stimuli.

I am always sad when I leave, for I never can totally shake off haunting feelings of "would of, could of, should of” about my life. Questions such as: What if I had...? Why did I do that? Why didn't I do this? Should I have done this? Shouldn't I have said that? It is always an unsettling feeling when the plane takes off, leaving the ground on which I first set foot and which also helped set the foundation of my life.

* * * * *

June 1970 was a great time in my life, a brief period when everything seemed to come together. It was great! I had graduated from Avoca High School the month before, I had a gorgeous girlfriend who lived in Omaha and I was working for the prestigious Heafey & Heafey Mortuary at 3522 Farnam St., on what was then called "mortuary row."  Everything was wonderful, so wonderful that my boss allowed me to borrow the lead car to take my "city chick" out on the town in downtown Omaha.

I had my life all planned out. I was going to enroll in college, then go on to mortuary school in Boston. Eventually, I was going to own my own chain of funeral homes in southwestern Iowa. As I saw things back then, the sky was the limit.

Was I ever happy to leave high school behind! I was a terrible student, and as far as I could tell, only two teachers in my whole high school career liked me. The rest viewed me as a complete loser. When I walked across the stage in the old high school gym to get my diploma, my first reaction was surprise that I'd gotten it. Then, looking out at the crowd of teachers, I thought, "Thank God I am rid of them. They never took the time to get to know me and understand me." I had a real pity-fest, which I enjoyed then and still enjoy today.

While I was standing in line waiting to get my diploma, I was talking to a fellow student by the name of Tom Sewing. Tom and I always stood next to each other, because in high school they followed a penal-type system under which students were always lined up alphabetically, even in fire drills, and there were no T's or U's in our school.

Tom and I were chums all through our time in school together. Tom's parents were formally connected to the community of Underwood, Iowa, but at this time his father worked a farm southwest of our town; they were mighty fine people. Tom had a beautiful little sister, two years younger, named Renae. I used to do odd jobs for the old man who owned the farm where the Sewings lived, and when I had completed my farm work I would go to visit the Sewings. I really liked them all, for they seemed to always laugh at my stupid stories and jokes, and they let me play their small electronic organ. I made terrible mistakes in playing, but the Sewings always clapped and told me how great I was.

Tom Sewing was the envy of the entire Avoca High School. He didn't have a girlfriend; he didn't have money; he didn't have great athletic power; he didn't have an acne-free face. But he had something else much, much better—a car! Tom Sewing had a Barracuda, an honest-to-God 1960-something Barracuda, and he drove that machine with top-notch skill and speed. He could spin the wheels and burn rubber; he could pop the clutch and he could whip that machine around and turn it on a dime.

Students lined up to get rides. I meekly suggested that he charge a 25-cent fee to the poor kids and a 50-cent fee to the rich kids for a ride in his impressive car. I also, out of the goodness of my heart, offered to help him by collecting the money, for which I wanted only a paltry 60 percent share for marketing and financial handling charges. Tom firmly declined my offer, and happily our friendship survived his rejection.

His sister Renae was a sweetheart. She had a beautiful smile, was a talented student and excelled in athletics. I could tease her and she was always a good sport. She liked to ride on the back of Tom's other vehicle, a motorcycle. The two of them would fly like the wind on the back roads of southwestern Iowa. Tom liked to go fast. What 18-year-old doesn't?

* * * * *
My father's birthday dinner was held on a Saturday night at Johnny's Cafe, an Omaha landmark our family has patronized for many years. Sunday after the party, my brother flew back to Houston, and I was scheduled to stay one more day and fly back to Atlanta on Monday afternoon. About five o'clock Sunday afternoon, I decided to drive around and visit some boyhood places so I could refresh my spirit before leaving the next day.

I planned to drive into Council Bluffs and then to continue into Omaha for my memory tour, followed by dinner. As I was driving alone down Highway 61, I entered the town of Underwood. It was about 5:30 p.m. and the sun was setting, the colors of the sky were spectacular and the farmers were still working in the fields. Suddenly a feeling came over me which I have learned to pay attention to over the years. The feeling is always the same, one of great peace, sadness, reverence and yearning for something, all simultaneous. I felt the emotions overwhelm me.

I wish I could remember the exact date of the phone call, but I cannot. I am confident, however that my girlfriend in Omaha called me in the late afternoon. I was working and living at the Heafey & Heafey Mortuary and was in my apartment above the carriage house when I answered the phone. ''Todd?'' "Yes." "It's Patty." "Yes, I know; what's up?" "I don't know how to tell you this." "What? What's wrong?" "Todd, Oh, it's terrible news. Tom Sewing and his sister were killed this afternoon in an accident."

I stood stunned, no one else there but me. "Both of them?" "Yes." "Are you sure?" "Yes, my Aunt Georgia just called and said that I should let you know before you saw it on the news." "Both? Are you sure?" I asked again.

I distinctly remember that it was a beautiful June day, because Heafey's had conducted a funeral that morning for a priest out at the Dowd Chapel on the Boy's Town campus and Msgr. Wegner had commented on the beauty of the day. When Patty called, I had just finished washing the funeral coach because we had another large funeral service the next morning.

Tom and Renae also must have thought it a beautiful day, and of course it was summer. Tom had just graduated, and Renae was off for the summer. As best as I was ever able to piece the story together, Tom and his little sister took off on the motorcycle sometime before noon. They were traveling up a town road in Minden, Iowa, and were just crossing Interstate 80 when a truck pulled out in front of them. The collision was horrendous; my two young friends were taken to the Council Bluffs hospital, but the trip proved futile and in time both were pronounced dead.

The next several days were full of activity. I was asked to assist in conducting the funeral and had the honor of driving the funeral coach in which Renae’s body rested. The funeral was held in the sanctuary of Trinity Lutheran Church simply because it was the largest religious building in our town. The school gym was larger and available, but the Sewings were religious people, so to church we went.

Tom and Renae Sewing were buried side by side in the Sewing plot, where at least two generations of the family rested in the H.D. Fisher Cemetery outside of Underwood. I left the cemetery at around 5:30 p.m. with an empty funeral coach, drove back to Avoca, parked the vehicle at the local funeral home, and then drove into Omaha that evening to see college friends and drown my sorrows. Since that day 35 years ago, I had not set foot in the H. D. Fisher Cemetery.

* * * * *

Now, as I inched the car down the main street of Underwood, I could see the evergreen trees which mark the H. D. Fisher cemetery to the west. I turned the car to the right and started down a gravel road, then stopped at an intersection. A woman jogged past me, sweating. I smiled and waved; she just waved. I have never seen a happy jogger in my life. I turned to the left and went up and down two hills and finally stopped at the top of the third hill.

I got out of the car and stood there for a moment. It reminded me of playing "King of the Mountain" as a child. I could see for miles and miles. The farmers were working the land to the right and left. One farmer drove by on his John Deere, waving. Everybody in Iowa waves at each other. I waved back. The farmer's expression told me he knew that I was not some tourist. The farmer, I could tell, knew I had a connection to the place.

A warm autumn breeze was my companion as I entered the cemetery gates. It did not take long to locate Tom and Renae's graves. They share one gray granite upright marker with different dates of birth but the same date of death. I stood by their graves, and I felt like I was floating. I studied the stone carefully and a thought began to radiate through me, mind, body and soul. "God almighty, is life a precious gift!" Again and again, "God almighty, is life a precious gift!"

The year 1970 was chiseled twice on that headstone. Nineteen-seventy, 35 years ago. I began to take stock of my life, feeling humbled and grateful, in the presence of the earthly symbol of my dear friends' brief lives, that I have been alive for the past 35 years. What a blessing!

I felt puny and embarrassed to recall my reactions and responses to certain episodes in my life that I thought were unfair or unwarranted and which caused me stress and unhappiness. I felt ashamed to recall times in my life when I was not able to appreciate or be thankful for everything life threw at me.

For the truth is, all the times I thought life was picking on me, I was living, breathing, experiencing—while my young friends Tom and Renae were all this time lying in their graves. I looked out at the farmers and thought about how many crops had been planted, how many seasons had changed the scenery in the cemetery where my young friends' bodies have lain all this time, while I have been blessed and fortunate to be present, to contribute, to try make a difference in this crazy world.

I thought about all my failures and successes. Someone else got my gorgeous girlfriend from Omaha. Someone else in Omaha got the chain of funeral homes I had planned in southwestern Iowa. Someone, it seems, has always done better than I.

But I have a wonderful son; I have a great career which I never could have imagined; I have many friends and associates worldwide. I have a great church home; I have my health. I have traveled the world over. I came from really good people; I have a great education. I have lived life and my parents have not had to see their children buried. There is nothing more difficult than for parents to bury their children. A wise rabbi from Boston, Earl Grollman, once told me that when your parents die you have lost your past, when your spouse dies you have lost your present, but when your children die you have lost your future.

Standing in front of Thomas and Renae Sewing's gravestone in Underwood, I was humbled to the core, and said a prayer of thanksgiving for my good fortunes in life. It was a great comfort to let this experience in a cemetery soak into the core of my spirit. It's odd that I have often thought about the Sewings the past 35 years, yet it wasn't until I entered the cemetery gates to visit the gentle pastoral scene of their resting place on top of a country hill in western Iowa that the Holy Spirit moved me to a reawakening, a genuine appreciation of the precious gift of life.

Tom and Renae's physical lives ended in youth. They never experienced the joys of parenthood, the pride of a career or even college. They also never experienced the torments and toils of aging, the frustrations of seeing health pass and energy wane. Both Tom and Renae were bright and quick and had big hearts. They were both growing into adults capable of seeking truth and creating beauty. But on one June day, death was upon them in an instant and no one could stop the Grim Reaper. It seems he is everywhere. As a funeral director I have learned a few lessons about life. Here is one of them:

Death wins.

* * * * *
As I walked back to the car, I saw one of the farmers fiddling with his tractor. I stopped and asked how the crops were looking this year. "It's another bumper crop!" he responded with a great big grin. I said to him, "It must be great to see life grow and blossom year after year." He responded, "Yea, I guess it's the Lord's work."

I was now standing in the middle of the road. I looked to the left, toward Tom and Renae's gravestone, and then to the right, to my new farmer friend, who was working the land in order to create new life in the spring. At that moment I remembered visiting the Sewings on their farm and seeing the light stream across the corn fields.  I remember playing with Tom and Renae; they were so joyous, running madly over the lawn in front of the farmhouse, laughing, yelling and panting for breath. What energy, what spirit and what happiness! What did we then care about death?

As I walked back to the car, I looked over one last time at my farmer friend. Ah, yes, the work of the Lord; no truer words have ever been spoken. I drove back to the highway. It was time for a nice cocktail or two or three and a wonderful Omaha steak.

As I drove, I was not thinking explicitly about Tom and Renae in the ground or about my farmer friend across the road, harvesting the old and planning for new life in the spring. But a strange connection struck my fancy as I thought of the insects which make their homes both in graveyards and fields. I thought how in the midst of life and death, in the midst of creation and destruction, the simple murmur of insects calling to their mates creates a powerful life force. We see this same Godgiven force in human beings when lovers call to their mates through clasped hands and touching lips.

As the sun finally set below the magnificent panorama of the western Iowa sky, and as the diligent farmers kept up their work, I thought that the other lesson this funeral director has learned is this: Life wins.