Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Stealing from the Dead in North Platte, Nebraska

A few weeks ago, I opened up the Lincoln Journal Star and stumbled upon a short article that made me immediately go for the scissors. It wasn't the title that struck me: "Thefts at cemetery becoming blatant." What really caught my attention was the location: North Platte. It turns out that those thefts occurred at a cemetery I had visited only two weeks before. I won't repeat the contents of the article. You can read it online by clicking on the following link:

On May 19th, I accompanied my husband Bob Graybosch, USDA-ARS wheat geneticist as he checked his wheat plots at three sites across the state. (See blog post of May 19, 2014.) Our final stop that day was the North Platte Research Farm.

As we pulled onto the dirt road leading to the wheat field, I looked to the north where an expanse of closely cropped grass lay in stark contrast to the heading wheat. An open space in the windbreak framed an imposing statue of Christ Carrying the Cross, as if He were struggling away from me toward Calvary. There were no tombstones visible since all markers at Floral Gardens are flush with the soil surface, so it was not clear to me what I glimpsed through the windbreak. Bob told me that it was a cemetery, and although we were running very late and our dinner way overdue, he readily agreed to make a short visit to Floral Gardens after finishing with the wheat plots.

Floral Gardens is small, quiet, and unassuming. It is set adjacent to farmland, seeming to grow from the agricultural roots of the people who claim patches of its soil as their final homes. Only two statues break up the flat green space: the Christ Carrying the Cross and a statue of Mary standing at a distance.

On that day, Floral Gardens was nearly devoid of memorials left by loved ones with one notable and attention-grabbing exception. Standing guard over a lone gravesite in the middle of the lawn was a statue of a yellow dog and a small angel figurine in an attitude of prayer. Bob immediately wanted to go over to this whimsical display to take a closer look, but I hesitated, as the memory of a cemetery visit many years ago rushed back with all the accompanying sadness.

It was Eastertime 1987, and I had just moved from Alabama to Brielle, New Jersey with my parents. After unpacking, my father and I decided to take a walk and explore our new neighborhood. Soon we encountered a beautiful little cemetery set on a hill and shaded by mature white oaks and flowering dogwoods. This was the type of cemetery with headstones of all sizes and shapes standing in rows upon the young grass. Among the traditional arrangements of lilies and other spring foliage, a bright yellow Easter bunny attached to a metal stand held out his basket of treats in a welcoming gesture.

Without thinking, we hurried to that grave to take a closer look. My father and I stood there in silence as we read the very short story of a much too short life in the name and dates carved into the granite tombstone. It was the grave of a little boy who had died at three years of age. The date of his death was around seven years earlier, and as I thought of the young couple who came to this cemetery to make sure their little one would still have a Happy Easter, my eyes burned with unexpected tears. I turned to look at my father, still staring down at the grave. It was the only time I have ever seen my father cry.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the yellow dog and angel at Floral Gardens in North Platte. I was greatly relieved to find that it was not at all a child's grave. It was, instead, the final resting place of an older and long-married couple. They were born in the same year, and for that reason, I like to imagine that they were high school sweethearts. In bringing these tokens to their grave, their family continues to celebrate this couple's love of dogs as well as acknowledge that they now live in the company of angels. I thought that since this was the only memorial we saw at Floral Gardens, the management had some sort of rule forbidding them, and that the family of this couple was defying it. Little did I know that the reason the cemetery was nearly devoid of memorials was that people have been stealing them. The reason the yellow dog and angel were left behind was because they had no resale value.

After reading the Lincoln Journal Star article, I tried to muster what I sensed was the requisite indignation, but all I could feel was pity. Pity for people whose grief is lightened momentarily as they leave little tokens of remembrance at gravesites. Pity for those same people who return to find those tokens gone, the petty theft adding loss upon loss. I thought of that young New Jersey couple long ago, and my heart ached to imagine them returning to their little boy's grave to find that someone had absconded with the Easter Bunny. And finally, I could not help pitying the thieves themselves. Perhaps hanging out even for a brief time with the departed can help put these things into perspective. The economic desperation that would drive a person to steal memorials from a cemetery is rampant in rural Nebraska where many lack job opportunities. In the world of crime, this is a small one, and perhaps for some, a necessary one. I'd like to think that the dead would be the first to understand and forgive.