Last month, my siblings and I worked out the final design for my father’s gravestone. We opted for a single stone with both my parents’ names on it, thinking forward to when my mother will die. I remember being glad that at least the part with the names was straightforward: one husband, one wife, one last name.
But even as we arrange to have that name carved in stone, I cannot help thinking about how transient it is. That name, my maiden name, is French, but our family is certainly not. My shtetl-born ancestors fled their home on a French boat, and some overworked Ellis Island official made the switch, either translating the name or just not listening very hard, Vito Corleone-style. Our true name is lost, and my family name is less than a hundred years old. So when I gave it up for my husband’s name, I was not giving up much.
And when we gave my husband’s last name to our children, that was not much to give, either. The auspicious name of “Fisher” came into being when my husband’s great-grandfather did something regrettable and had to flee the country quickly. When he came back, his name was “Fisher,” and that is all we know.
Most of us have a history of going back and forth across continents and oceans, whether we were dragged there or seeking fortune or fleeing oppression or escaping justice.
What is a Fisher? Some combination of whatever we cannot shake and whatever we decide to build, just like everyone else in the family of man. Trace anyone’s ancestry back far enough and you are almost guaranteed to hit a question mark or a lie or else an idea that may not sit well: that the family we really belong to is the family of man.
Most of us have a history of going back and forth across continents and oceans, whether we were dragged there or seeking fortune or fleeing oppression or escaping justice. Back and forth, around and around we go, taking on and shedding and making up names as we go. I do not say that history does not matter. But individual family names matter less than we like to admit; and eventually they will be taken away from us.
Shortly before he died, my father said that God was taking away more and more things from him: his health, his ability to visit my mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home, even his ability to walk. He told my sister it was good, to lose these things. He said God was getting him ready for death. He had a clear view of where he was headed.
We are still trying to make our way to the promised land, to the mountain of God, which is our inheritance; and then we will find out who we really are.
The cemetery where we buried him had other fresh graves and also some very old ones—some with headstones whose names were blurred, illegible. And there is a loss, a loss to history. But those nameless stones also say something true. They say: I belong to the family of man. We are a family that has pitched a tent for now, but we are not settled yet. We are still trying to make our way to the promised land, to the mountain of God, which is our inheritance; and then we will find out who we really are.
These were my thoughts as I drove around a mountain road near my home not long ago. Our old pastor once said that when he sees our local mountain he thinks to himself: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
The first time I heard him say this I smiled condescendingly to myself. Mount Monadnock may be the highest thing in our little county, but it is just a minor lump of rock and pines, hardly Mount Horeb. I’ve been to the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been to Switzerland. I have seen real mountains.
The names we etch on gravestones are for the sake of the living, not for the dead.
But as small as our mountain may be, it is very hard to get away from it, even when you cannot see it. All the little towns where I have business are grouped around it, and all the roads twist and turn and unroll up and down as they find their way around its foothills. The roads are densely sheltered with trees. You cannot tell where you are or where you have been. It takes an effort not to be mesmerized by so much green, to keep your mind on where you are headed. Curve after curve, tree after tree, leaf upon leaf, and as you go, you do not even realize you are climbing steadily.
Then suddenly, the overwhelming green gives way to a clearing and the wide open sky. And there is the mountain, grand and gracious in the sun. Every time I burst out of the leafy confusion into that bright, broad view, any sardonic thoughts fall away. I breathe the high air.
The first time I broke out of the green and found myself so unexpectedly high, I wondered to myself who was lucky enough to own this prime little piece of land. Who enjoys this clear view of the mountain every day of their life? Whose property could it be?
Then I saw: It was a cemetery. I laughed out loud. The most spectacular view for miles around and not a single living person to enjoy it!
I laughed, and then I nodded to myself. There are the dead, our ancestors, done with their travels, staking out a quiet claim for the family of man. Nobody will take away this land they are keeping for us. The living go about our work, traveling this way and that, maybe being dragged, maybe seeking our fortunes, focusing on our little patch of road in front of us, and meanwhile, the dead are keeping this ground clear. Everything else, even their names, has been taken away from them, and they are reserving for their family a spot with the one thing we really need: a view of the mountain.
The names we etch on gravestones are for the sake of the living, not for the dead. We are the ones who want so desperately to pin things down, to get it right, to get a definitive answer about who we are.
But the dead are more forward-thinking. They are the ones with the mountain view.