Neighbors We Don’t Pick

IMG_2249With Memorial Day upon us, I was in the cemetery this week to place flowers on family graves. I found myself wondering about the people who end up being buried next to us. They won’t necessarily be friends. We could find ourselves stretched out for eternity next to a rival, an enemy, someone for whom we hold utter disdain. Or maybe just someone who once memorably (and isn’t it always memorable?) criticized our housekeeping, our fieldwork, the style (or lack thereof) of our dress, or (heaven forbid) our children.

Surely that happens, too, in our Memorial Day ceremonies, when we remember those who didn’t come back alive from war. In a small town, some of those fallen heroes probably knew each other. A range of differences, squabbles and annoyances likely separated some of those names, if only we knew (or remembered) their stories. Yet they are eternally and peaceably linked on civic plaques and in lists that are read each year with great solemnity.

I planned a funeral last year for a long-time resident of the prison, and asked our choir to sing. Some of the deceased’s friends balked at the idea that V—who had spent decades at the prison alongside the deceased—was going to be among those singing. “They never got along. K hated her.” I wasn’t about to honor this posthumously expressed enmity. “We don’t get to pick who comes to our funeral,” I said, and V sang alongside her sisters that day.

The truth is: we don’t pick the neighbors that will lie alongside us in perpetuity. I suppose some have tried. Mrs. Anderson perhaps asked for a different location when she realized that the Barneses held the plot next to the one offered. But by the time those spaces were occupied, perhaps the Andersons and Barneses had reconciled, but a tiff had emerged with Mr. Schmidt who lay near Mrs. Anderson’s chosen resting place. One can only assume that these dynamics have played themselves out many times in many towns.

Yet the years pass, and flowers are placed at those graves—until they aren’t. Tears flow, and are dried, and over time memories fade, so that, all too soon, who can say whether the Andersons and the Barneses and the Schmidts were mortal enemies or bosom friends? Those tragic soldiers who never got along in school are, in the end, united more by their shared experiences than they were divided by the petty differences that kept them at odds through the years.

There’s a reminder here for us with our neighbors of all sorts whom—in actuality—we never choose. In death and in life, our common humanity binds us together beyond our perceived slights and real differences of opinion. What if we could walk among our living neighbors with the benign respectfulness we manage as we move through a graveyard?