Cover me over, clover;
Cover me over, grass.
The mellow day is over
And there is night to pass.
Green arms about my head,
Green fingers on my hands.
Earth has no quieter bed
In all her quiet lands.
That’s the poem that I recited. I recited the poem slowly.
Among the attendees--you can see some of us in the distance, in the picture--among the attendees, there was silence while I recited. Wind blew through the pinion pines, and when I finished reciting, a shaft of sun came out from behind a cloud and colored us bright.
The poem was carved into the gravestone. The grave was that of my uncle who had bought the ranch in the 1930s.
When he died in 1969, his wife and family determined that this poem should be carved in his gravestone because it was written by my father, my aunt’s brother, and because it had been used as a blessing at almost all family funerals since it had been written, inspired as a memorial to my father’s and my aunt’s own mother almost one hundred years ago, in the early 1920s.
We were gathered at the top of a slope at about 7,000 feet of elevation in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of northern New Mexico. Hermit’s Peak, at 10,267 feet, was just a mile or two higher up the canyon’s crooked way.
We had gathered at this New Mexico family’s burial plot to memorialize another death.
My uncle’s stone is the largest stone of the plot, at its back. In front of it, there is another stone memorializing his wife, my aunt, who rests with him.
As I recited, we were all of us aware of the lovely wooden box that sat on two planks across a newly dug hole. The box contained the cremated remains of my uncle and aunt’s middle child and one of their daughters, my cousin.
The ranch is in the Gallinas Canyon, and it is where, when all of us cousins were children and either from New England, from Chicago, or from this ranch, we were immortal. Being immortal, we loved to pelt out of the ranch house to ride, ride, ride.
This cousin, the one who we were burying that day, rode bareback. I didn’t; I was scared to.
The ranch has no horses now, but there’s wildlife to be seen across its distances—elk, bear, turkeys, even a mountain lion has been caught snarling in a motion light.
Another cousin lives at the ranch. He is the youngest of my uncle and my aunt’s three children. He was the State of New Mexico’s Electrical Inspector, keeping people powered up and the grid safe, and, now retired, he and his wife spend the winter in Belize.
When we were boys, this cousin taught me to trout-fish in the stream that runs through the canyon—when we caught them, the trout were so fresh they curled instantly into circles when they hit the fry pan.
The eldest of my New Mexico cousins lives in Albuquerque. She is a poet and the author of a mystery novel that takes place in a place very much like this canyon, the plot of which turns on a theft from a church very much like the church that is below the graveyard where we stood. This cousin is a teacher and has a great heart for Native American individuals, culture and art.
The woman we were burying had followed her husband to his farm in Alabama but her career was intake specialist working with the homeless and the mentally ill, at social service agencies.
All of them helpers, these—my New Mexico cousins—and that doesn’t count another cousin who is a minister and whose husband is also a minister, nor does it count yet another cousin who married a minister and was deeply active in his ministry.
Back at the graveside, after Cover Me Over, I read a fine poem that my Albuquerque cousin wrote as a farewell to her sister. It was a blessing that she had been able to read this poem to her sister before she passed. Then the grandchildren chimed in, either with poems of their own, or with prose—but all with heartfelt emotion.
Without any priestly attendance, we recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer—no other liturgical apparatus than that.
Perhaps thirty graves were there in that spot among the pinion pines. It is a public grave site, but there was no officialdom present. Several of the men in our group had dug the hole and had placed the box across the planks just so.
The scattering of graves had carved wooden or stone markers and most graves were casually separated from other graves by boundaries of round stones. Some grave sites were more elaborate, for instance with a fence around. Here and there clusters of wild flowers had sprung up. But it had been a dry spring and undergrowth was sparse. Many plots had artificial flowers to brighten them.
Pinion pine cones were everywhere, to be trodden on and made to crackle.
When the prayers were finished and the silence was over, the husband and two other men carefully lowered the wooden box which he had built into the earth. Then we all passed by the spot and crumbled some earth in our fingers and tossed it onto the box. When done, the husband and the others shoveled the rest of the earth over the top, and then the grave stone with its carved identification was placed on the earth and patted down.
A filigreed iron cross was already set in the ground at one end of the family’s burial plot. At its other end was the stone that marked the resting place of the father. Now, in between, buried with him, were his wife and one of their daughters.
The husband of the cousin we had just buried stood next to me. He had seemed bowed during the previous two days while many of us flew in from far places to attend this event. He brushed off his hands from the dirt. “Finally,” he said to me. “It’s at last a relief.”
On the other side of me was my minister cousin. “You read so well,” she said to me. “Thank you.”
I was pleased she thought so, having wanted to.
But I was most aware of two things. I was aware of the relief in the husband’s voice. My cousin’s death had been a long struggle while her lungs ceased to bring her air. I was grateful for him, for his relief.
Physically, I am almost exactly the spit and image of my father. I was aware that I had recited his funeral words with his own cadence and with his own intonation and with his own rotundity of voice, just as I heard his voice in my head while I recited them.
It was a relief to invoke him for the attendees, who loved him and love his words. Sometimes, though, I must struggle to keep track of which one of us is which. I am not him; except when seeming.
Cover me over, indeed, dear cousin.
Cover me over, indeed, dear Dad.
Cover me over, all of us, when our times finally come and when our struggles are finally done.
May the Lord receive us, if He will.