A Cemetery Song

I was raised by the dead. It’s true. In my childhood, my dad made a living selling and engraving tombstones, and then reuniting each finished product with its namesake in the manicured cemeteries, weedy graveyards, and rocky hills across Oregon where we lay our loved ones to rest. I spent my youth alongside him, walking the rows of headstones in search of a jobsite, hauling tools from his work van, mixing cement, cleaning up, or off exploring the scrap heaps and wildlife hidden behind the hedgerows. All the while absorbing the rich lessons around me.

I taught myself math by calculating people’s ages at the time of their death. This is a fun game when you’re six, until the grim knowledge confronts you that, while most people die old, many do not. At my dad’s instruction, I learned how to read a cemetery like a history book, understanding a community from the clues left on its tombstones: its immigration patterns, religious affiliations, civic organizations, the human capital it gave to various war efforts. Like my siblings before me, I learned how to drive in a cemetery. “Who you gonna kill?” my dad joked when it was my turn to tentatively set the work van in motion. And in those Polaroid days of my youth, in grass stained Tuffskin pants, my presence in all those graveyards allowed me to watch other people grieve. Nothing taught me more than that, then or since.

Like all the best traditions in this old-time music, this one too survives with the artists driving today’s sparkling revival of traditional country and folk music. Beautiful songs from the graveyard are still being produced.

For most people, the cemetery is something to whistle past, a place to avoid, physically or in quiet contemplation. Country music artists, blessedly, are not among those people. The genre has long found them to be fertile ground for storytelling, establishing a tradition of songs that are placed in the graveyard, and sometimes in the grave itself. I guess three chords and the truth could never check its obligations at the cemetery gate.

“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is one of the genre’s foundational songs. The old Christian hymn was re-worked by the Carter family into a heartbreaking dirge from the perspective of a daughter mourning the loss of her mother. Trailing the funeral procession, she wails, “I followed close behind her//Tried to hold up and be brave//But I could not hide my sorrow//When they laid her in the grave.”

The first song I remember hearing that was expressly set in a cemetery was “Long Black Veil.” The narrator of this mournful tune, already underground, tells the story of his death and the lonely, secret, visitor to his grave. The original song, written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill and recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1958 was both a commercial smash and an inspiration for generations of artists moved to cover the song, or attempt to write one of their own placed in a cemetery just as poignant.

Like all the best traditions in this old-time music, this one too survives with the artists driving today’s sparkling revival of traditional country and folk music. Beautiful songs from the graveyard are still being produced.

Colter Wall’s “Caroline” stands out for its emotional tenor and astonishing turns of phrase: “There’s a place where the sun doth shine//And the birds keep time with the pines up a-yonder//That’s the home of my Caroline//She’s dancing in the sky.” Wall follows the love story to its conclusion: “Caroline oh Caroline, I’ll be home just at any old time//The grave in the garden won’t be satisfied//Until your name is next to mine.”

Billy Strings does an inspired rendition of Ralph Stanley’s upbeat song, “A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy’s Grave.” Waylon Payne’s “Back from the Grave” isn’t so much a cemetery song as a personal redemption one where the narrator is making the most of a second chance so unexpected, only one metaphor could capture it.

Brent Cobb didn’t initially set out to write a gravesite song when he and writing partner Casey Wood conjured up “Diggin’ Holes,” but as the song started to come together, Cobb understood where it had to end. “Well I oughta make a living in a graveyard,” he sings in the final verse. “Lord knows I’m good at digging holes.”

“At the time, Casey and I were both going through something with our significant others,” Cobb recalls of the song’s origins. “So was Casey’s brother, who was a coal miner, and as we were working out the song it occurred to me, ‘I guess we’re all digging holes for ourselves.’ You know, at some point you start wondering if you’re the one causing the problems in the relationship and perhaps that significant other would be better off without you.”

Cobb believes that people are drawn to this music, in part, “because they crave authenticity, because they yearn to be in the presence of something natural. There are so many grave songs in country because there are only two things that are perfectly natural, when we’re born and when we die. Death is a universal truth. It’s innate in us. The songs aren’t meant to remind us about death. They’re to remind us about living,” he said.

To remind us about living. Cobb’s insight not only explains the enduring resonance of cemetery songs in country music, but it helps me understand why I keep returning to them myself. A couple of years ago, on the anniversary of my sister’s death, I took my two boys to a cemetery near our house in California. We visit it regularly. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know a soul there. I don’t need to lay flowers on my dad’s stone to feel close to him, or drop tears on my sister’s grave to mourn her loss. Any old cemetery will work.

On this particular day, my attempt at quiet reflection was broken by the sight of my then-four year old crashing off the gravestones as he tore around with his brother. I yelled at him to be more careful, and like a lot of my requests, the boy gleefully agreed, shouting “Ok, Daddy!” before proceeding to do whatever suits him, in this case going right back to careening through the granite monuments. A short while later he came whizzing into view again, his auburn hair shooting across the green grass like a fireball. I happened to be standing in front of a stone marking the grave of a person who lived from 1900 to 1950.

“Luke, check this one out,” I said, pointing to the dates. “This guy lived 50 years, exactly the age I am right now.”

“Whoa Dad. That means you could die today!” He laughed cheerfully and streaked off again, the timeless, glorious, liberating wisdom trailing like a vapor.

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