To enter this pioneer graveyard in Port Gamble, Washington, is to enter their silence. As I walk carefully among the decaying headstones, their lives, mysteriously summed up in dates of birth and death, and perhaps an epitaph, call out the old grief and their now and forever rest beneath the grass. This one died after only twenty-six years, this one after eighty. This one only a dear infant, gone. A square tower on one side says simply, “Our Mother,” and on the next side, “Our Father.” And one says, “Willie.”

Our Willie on this cold marble traced
Is all that’s left of thee to love
Yet the chain that death hath broken here
Shall be linked by angel hands above

Such places always hold for me a sense of the love and acceptance that unconditionally endures in memory.

When I was a small boy, my older brother and I went off by ourselves to explore a wooded island in the San Juans. It was late in the afternoon with slant light woven deep among the summer firs. Farther on in the forest suddenly we came upon an ancient graveyard for some pioneer family long since gone. A picket fence tipped sideways and in some places drown beneath skeins of blackberry vine and thick drifts of old leaves among the ferns. The headstones, tall and stately and probably very expensive for their day tipped forward or back at odd angles in a wholly uncared for way. It looked like no one had visited here for many, many years.

Unmistakably, this was sacred ground. That was sure. My brother and I, suddenly awed, stepped carefully forward to rake our fingers across the decrepit dates and names, hardly readable anymore. The stones felt warm and oddly comforting to the touch in the late summer light. This was no Stephen King novel ready to erupt into ghosts and terrors, but the place of an unutterable, most profound and rightful peace, a mysteriously overgrown garden of return, strangely intimate with its delicate blossoms and stems carved in stone. We were careful not to invade too much in such a vulnerable place.

What a gift it was to find it! For when we die what were our lives on earth probably will be reduced to a set of manicured stones set with artificial flowers or nameplates for just anyone to notice and wonder about. Cars likely will drive past and visitors may come and go often, taking their pointless snapshots to be placed in folders and filed away. But here, among the trees, something better was happening — and still is. The place itself is sinking back into the earth’s full wildness, hastened by human forgetfulness after a century and more, growing and decaying down and down in a forgotten corner of the island. It makes me wonder how it looks today since this adventure with my brother took place about fifty years ago. All those summers and winters, the rains and fogs sweeping across and through the firs, the berry vines, the nearby maples blossoming and losing their leaves, year upon year.

Truly they are returning. If you were lucky enough to be buried in this place, you might become like them, become not a memory of a person bounded by dates and sentiments, but just the sweet smell of drying leaves and the feel of salt air wafting through the sacred woods of childhood. Then you might truly be because you no longer are.