Prairie cemetery memories leave lump in the throat

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 14, 2007

An inscriptionless waist-high metal grave marker in a small, isolated Saskatchewan cemetery symbolized the grief, love and integrity of prairie life for author Phil Minnaar.
Photo by Phil Minnaar

Cochrane coffee companion Marlis McDouall really connected with our readers last week with her photograph and poem, “Prairie Graveyards.”

Lindsie Haxton, also of Cochrane, praised Marlis for her sensitivity in “reading between the lines on the engraved stones.”

Calgary coffee companion Jean Hammer wrote: “I, too, have walked the graveyards and wondered about the history and people lying beneath. I’ve come to realize all of us will have a story to tell.”

Edmonton coffee companion Barbara Stevens wrote: “I could feel the pain and suffering of those early pioneers and the loneliness of their loss through her poem.”

One of our readers, Darryl Klassen, a former Bow Valley resident now living in British Columbia (see my July 12, 2006 column), has special memories of prairie graveyards. He wrote to say his family had buried his mother in one of those out-of-the-way graveyards near Swift Current, Sask., a year ago. He shared his reflection on the event:

“It is a quiet, pretty spot,” he said, “surrounded by fields and pastures.

“Mom’s cremated remains, contained in a small cedar and mahogany box, rested by the graveside on a colourful wool blanket. On the lid of the box was a small cross made of Purple Heart wood.

“Our uncle read a brief commemoration which referred to the four seasons, and at each change of season, a symbol was placed on the box. There was the green fern of summer, the white purity of winter, the fragrance of a rose, and the eternal nature of the evergreen spruce. These were then lowered into the grave.

“Just before the ceremony concluded, one of our cousins knelt by the grave and placed some sweet tobacco in the grave. This was in response to a request by her Ojibwa children who were present. To me, it was all very meaningful, and sort of symbolized our becoming a real part of this land and its history.”

Then there was this note from Calgary/Cochrane coffee companion Phil Minnaar, author of The Positive Dictionary (see my January 31, 2007 column):

“Last week’s column about the graveyards along the country roads had a special meaning for me. On a recent journey to Saskatoon, I passed a graveyard on the prairies, far from any town or even farmhouses. My eye caught an extraordinary memorial – a waist-high metal sculpture of a horse and dismounted rider. There was no writing, no name, no history, but the symbolism of grieving, pure love and the integrity of prairie life, brought a lump to my throat.”

Thanks, coffee companions. Your responses have left a lump in my throat, too.

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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