COLUMN: Playing kids, graveyard smiles

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I’m not the one to go around telling ghost stories, even at Halloween time, but I’m pretty sure I overheard the laughs of happy spirits one recent Sunday.

My dad’s family held its annual family get-together at St. John’s Church in New Boston.

As always, it was nice visiting with cousins, aunts and uncles, some of whom I see often. Others, however, I seldom see. Lunch, like usual, was wonderful with chicken dressing, fried chicken, noodles, meatballs and various desserts. Equally predictably, I stuffed myself.

I had to be at work by 4 p.m. and after offering my goodbyes, I ventured outside. My niece and nephew and a few cousins their own age and older were tossing a football.

The ball occasionally tumbled into a row of graves, and once or twice bounced off a stone. I suspect those buried there didn’t really mind. Instead, I could almost see the smiles of those departed men and women, some of whom I knew in life, and whom I recall more often as I grow older.

I knew they weren’t bothered by the kids who romped over their bones.

I thought about the farmer who loved visiting and talking and for whom I worked many a summer day in a hay field. There was the former tavern owner and his wife and an old couple that I remember sitting two pews behind me. I remembered my aunt and others, friends and neighbors and parents of friends, men and women whose lives crossed with mine at the little white church on the hill.

A football rolled past the grave of another farmer, equally friendly, who died recently. I still remember some of his stories.

Tuesday was All Saints Day and Wednesday All Souls Day and how appropriate that I thought of the dead on a week when many Christians honor those who have gone before them, not just famous saints but ordinary people, everyday saints.

Each year I visit shooting matches and summer picnics at churches, chili suppers and ice-cream socials. How suitable it is that the people who belonged to those congregations form the backdrop of everyday life.

At one church shooting match this fall, as I walked along the row of graves, my camera in hand, I noticed that some cars were parked just feet away from the stones.

There were people standing all around — talking with one another amid the granite markers.

Some were just arriving and stopped to talk with someone they knew. Others were calling it a day, but hadn’t quite said their final goodbyes.

Not far away, I saw kids playing basketball. Another pair of youngsters were walking along a line of graves, apparently looking for a familiar name. A middle-aged couple stood at the other end of the cemetery, reflecting on a grave with slightly bowed heads.

I suppose some people would take offense to so much activity going on around the graves of the dead, with shotgun blasts, galloping kids and traffic turning the cemetery, at least for that day, into a beehive of activity.

I wasn’t put off by the commotion. In fact, as I walked past the stones, many decorated with autumn flowers — some carried photos or engraved images of the person buried there — I suspected the spirits of the men and women resting in the cemetery were glad to have company. I suspect they were happy to see people they once knew in life pass by: family members, cousins and neighbors.

I imagined them silently greeting strangers and even kids.

The graves of our loved ones shouldn’t be sterile rows of stones or off-limits monuments to the dead. There’s nothing wrong with cemeteries playing host to the living.

Back at New Boston, walking toward my car, a peal of laughter sprang from the playing group of teens. Closing my eyes, I thought I perhaps heard — amid the sounds of early joy — the warm laughs of departed souls, mingling with an autumn breeze that stirred the fallen leaves over not-forgotten graves.