A Great Cloud of Witnesses

A snowman stands guard over my aunt’s grave in Kulm, North Dakota. Snowman courtesy of great-grandsons.

Genealogists and cemeteries go together like peanut butter and jelly. So exploring cemeteries is nothing new to me.

I’ve tip-toed through broken stones and overgrown lilac bushes in the cemeteries of German villages in Ukraine, hoping to find a shard from an ancestor’s grave.

I’ve bumped over gravel roads to find the country cemetery out on the North Dakota prairie where my great-great-grandmother is buried.

I’ve walked in reverence through perfectly manicured cemeteries in Germany, knowing I wouldn’t find a 200-year-old ancestor (because they recycle graves in Germany), but searching for modern-day distant cousins.

I’ve visited my parents’ graves, two small graves among thousands in a city cemetery in Seattle.

I’ve even poked around cemeteries in Lviv and Havana that have no family connections, just because they’re picturesque.

So I’m no stranger to cemeteries, but I never expected to feel the sense of community I felt as I entered the Congregational Church cemetery in Kulm, North Dakota.

“There are my Schott grandparents,” I pointed out to the step-cousins in the car with me. “Oh, and that Billigmeier is related to me, but distantly. Oh look, there are Bobby and Alice. I remember such a great day my mom and I had with them once when I was visiting.” I thought not of their graves, but of each of these people’s lives. And felt a bit sad as we stood on one uncle’s grave, with the empty spot next to him that had been reserved for, but never used by, his wife. She was buried in Fargo, next to her not-liked-by-the-family second husband.

As the wind howled like only an October Dakota prairie wind can howl, the pastor at my Aunt Idella’s burial service (who also happens to be Idella’s grandson), talked about the great cloud of witnesses surrounding her as we laid her to rest.

It could have been creepy, but it was strangely cozy. I was surrounded by my peeps, relatives everywhere I looked.

It could have been cold and dismal, but the wind was strangely energizing as it enfolded our small group. We were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our community. Our family.



  1. Colleen Johnson on October 31, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    I’m thankful I was there to experience this tribute to my wonderful mother. There is no doubt in my mind that she is in Heaven with our beloved family. It’s our goal…BE THERE!

  2. Carolyn on October 31, 2018 at 8:18 pm

    And it is a comfort to know we will be there together!