After my grandfather passed away, I was terrified of death. I looked for solace in literature, scouring the internet for poetry in an attempt to better understand the various interpretations of death. I found Emily Dickinson and William Blake to be rather morbid and a bit too accepting of the inevitable nature of death that I so eagerly wanted to dismiss. I finally came across Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” (1932).
I was immediately struck by the first line, “Do not stand at my grave and weep.” I had worked in a Catholic cemetery the summer before going into my junior year of high school, the very same cemetery where my grandfather was buried. I was a grounds crew member who tended the grass and plants within the cemetery, ensuring that the sea of headstones was aesthetically pleasing. As I read the short poem, I was reminded of the countless number of visitors, who, day after day, would stand at the graves of their loved ones, attempting to emotionally interact with the people buried beneath their feet.
The first complete sentence reads, “Do not stand at my grave and weep/ I am not there.” The second line seems to suggest that the deceased person, who is the narrator of the poem, is not in fact buried. Instead, the narrator explicitly states that they still exist in some sort of capacity. Every time I visited my grandfather’s grave, I believed that he was really entombed six feet directly below where I was standing. I could not reconcile this reality with Frye’s poem.
As Frye’s poem continues, each line starts with “I am” and is followed by metaphorical descriptions: “I am a thousand winds that blow./ I am the diamond glints on snow./ I am the sunlight on ripened grain./ I am the gentle autumn rain.” The use of nature really resonated with me; I was greeted by the wind, sunlight, and sometimes even the rain every morning that I pulled my 2011 Honda Accord into a parking spot next to an ocean of tombstones.
I’d only ever worked during the day, so I had never been privy to the cemetery when it was draped in moonlight. There’s a part of me that thinks I would not have been able to handle such a morbid experience. Yet, Frye’s line “I am the soft stars that shine at night,” comforts me. These words suggest that for every person buried beneath a gravestone, there is a star. I liked the idea that my grandfather was an ever-present star in the vastness of outer space, always there.
Each time I read this poem, I recall the time I stood toward the back of the cemetery, raking wet leaves that had fallen during a bad storm the previous night. I watched as an older gentleman drove up to a section of headstones, pulled over, got out of his car, and proceeded to take a lawn chair out of his trunk. Intrigued, I paused my raking to see what the man was going to do with his chair. He placed the chair in front of a headstone, sat down, folded one leg over the other and stared straight ahead.
The man sat in his chair for close to two hours before finally packing up his belongings. I was crushed. Here I was, a sixteen-year-old high schooler, working a minimum wage summer job, never expecting to have to think so intensely about my own mortality. What I had intended on being a simple summer job became an ever-present memento mori. I never found out who that man was, but I did learn that the gravestone he visited multiple times a week was that of a woman who had passed away only a year earlier. A lover, a wife, a family member, or a friend? I’ll never know.
I have decided that I do not want to be buried in a cemetery. Rather, I’d like to be cremated. After seeing this man visit this woman every weekday for multiple hours a day, I just couldn’t imagine my family members doing the same. The final lines of Frye’s poem, which are similar but slightly different than the first two lines, repeat the idea that a gravestone is not the final resting place of a loved one: “Do not stand at my grave and cry;/ I am not there. I did not die.”
I can’t say that I’ve fully overcome my fear of death, but I can certainly say that I understand death–and life–in a completely new light. The point of Frye’s poem is not to mourn those loved ones who are no longer with us but to recognize that these people never leave us. I like to think now that my grandfather is not simply resting eternally in a predetermined plot of land, rather he takes on the simplest forms: the dew on grass as the sun dips over the horizon line, an autumnal gust of wind that ruffles the red, orange, and yellow leaves of a tree, or a light, refreshing snowfall. –Chris Fitzgerald
Chris Fitzgerald ’20 is from Malden, MA. He studies English and Spanish at Wesleyan University.
“Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” (1932)
By Mary Elizabeth Frye
Never Formally Published