Coffee companion reflects on lives engraved on stone

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 7, 2007

Tiny cemeteries dot the Prairie landscape, resting places for lives well lived and reminders that we, too, shall pass this way.  Photo by Marlis McDouall

Commemorating the dead is important in cultures and religions around the world.

The month of November is especially significant in this regard for most of our coffee companions in the West, with All Souls Day falling on Nov. 2 and Remembrance Day on Nov. 11.

Gravestones and cenotaphs, in particular, are timeless reminders of lives well lived. But they also speak of our own mortality; they stand at the fords of the Great River, proclaiming that we, too, shall pass this way.

With this in mind, Cochrane writer Marlis McDouall e-mailed me a poem she wrote, along with a photograph.

November is “the month that traditionally has been set aside to remember those who have gone before us,” she wrote, “be it as soldiers in the battlefields of the world, or as ordinary folks who worked hard all their lives to provide for their families and communities.”

On a recent journey through the Prairie provinces, Marlis said, she “stumbled across many tiny graveyards along the country roads, often miles away from any town or village, yet always looked after well.”

She ventured into some of these cemeteries, pausing among gravestones and crosses to read names and dates.

“I wondered about the many human stories and tragedies, now obscured by time,” she said. “In those beautiful, lonesome, windswept places one cannot help but ponder the fleetingness of life.”

Marlis put her impressions into “Prairie Graveyards,” verses she is permitting me to share with all our readers:

Weathered gravestones in prairie graveyards
Telling stories of love and loss.
Bleached by an unforgiving sun,
Overgrown with lichen and moss.

If you have never known ‘lonely’
It is here that you’ll find it for sure
Where Wind plays forever her anthem
Remembering the dead and the poor.

“Beloved husband of Sarah”
The inscription reads on the stone
Or “died in childbirth, my dearest wife”
It’s hard to go on alone.

Sadder still are the children
Whose lives never really began.
“Here rests our sweet little angel”
Gone back to Heaven again.

All those gravestones are stark reminders
Of how easily life can be lost,
And of people who’ve been here before us
To settle this land at great cost.

They came here from faraway places
To break the tough prairie soil,
Hoping to find a safe future
Through labour, through sweat and through toil.

So, traveller, bow your head quietly
And remember those resting beneath,
Walk slowly among the gravestones
And hear Wind sing her anthem of peace.

Thank you, Marlis. And thank you, all who have gone before; you are the giants on whose shoulders we stand as we reach up to billowing clouds and the stars beyond.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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