Rehoboth Cemetery

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Most white folks would say the cemetery at Rehoboth is not a well-kept place. Yet even months after Memorial Day, more fresh adornments festoon the burial sites, per capita, than most any graveyard off the reservation: a miniature basketball and hoop on the grave of a young woman who only a year earlier helped her Gallup team win a state championship; half-empty bottles of Coke half-buried in the dirt; stuffed animals galore, ceramic angels, all kinds of toys; rosary beads hung from a homemade wooden cross pushed into the ground beside a small statue of Mary in a Navajo blanket; hundreds—maybe thousands—of plastic flowers.   

Arlington National Cemetery’s impressive orderliness makes it seem the soldiers buried there are still heroic and selfless. But at Rehoboth’s cemetery the dead are remembered individually, strikingly, memorably, so that everywhere you look there is personality. So many stories. So much sadness. So much faith.

Here’s a young woman, knifed to death by her ex-boyfriend.  There’s the daughter of a missionary—6 years old, died in 1948—a Vandermeulen. Off to the left a little gray stone marks the body of a stillborn baby, one of the last deaths in the old Rehoboth hospital.  

And there’s Albert Henry—a single man, war hero, assistant pastor at the Naschitti church; and just beyond him, Sidney Nez, a missionary at Toadlena; and there’s Ben Musket, from a family that’s been part of the Rehoboth story for four generations. There’s Marie Davis, who worked in the Rehoboth kitchen for years; and then Juke Den Bleyker, faithful maintenance man for even more years.

Over there, a kid who played basketball as well as any in the past 30 years—died of alcoholism. And there’s Coolidge Begay, an almost lifelong member of Bethany CRC, a quiet man whose son was a sheriff and today has a great-grandson in the sixth grade at the new middle school. There’s David Charles—died tragically in a car accident, just 19 years old.

In a straight line running north and south, you’ll find a list of names that have been in The Banner before: Rev. L.P. Brink, pioneer missionary, who came to the shadow of the Red Rocks in 1901 and died here in ’36. Rolf Veenstra, a patriarch of more recent vintage; his stone, flat and tan and somehow perfect for this desert landscape, calls him a “saint.” Casey Kuipers and his wife, Martha, who spent a lifetime in Zuni talking to folks about Jesus.   Jessica Cameron Mierop Basie, 1913-1997—most of a century, spent some years here too.

And here you’ll find Navajo Code Talkers, authentic World War II heroes, distinguished warriors from the Navajo nation, their Native tongue indecipherable to the Japanese. Their wives are here too, beloved grandmas who stayed behind at home and prayed—scores of them. There are Damons and Oppenhuizens, Henrys and Bosschers, Kamps and Begays, Yazzies and Boumas.  

The rutted path down the middle of the cemetery may once have been a line of demarcation, though it is no more. To the west dozens of Navajo graves lie side-by-side, as colorful as a reservation sunset. To the right, even today, stands a line of missionary graves as poised as an ancient synodical committee.

But today, even though the sites are mixed, integrated, it’s the Native gravesites that lend the place its color and personality against the dusky earth tones of the desert. Keepsakes are everywhere—toy cars on the site of a 6-year-old, a boom box on a stone that honors a father, a dozen toy sheep and goats grazing over the hillside mound of a beloved grandma. Dozens of the memorials are handmade, lots of wooden crosses. Rehoboth Cemetery looks nothing at all like a graveyard in Hull, or Hudsonville, or Hoboken for that matter.

Everywhere you look wild grasses spring weedy and whiskery and seemingly out of control, snakeweed and larkspur in a scratchy profusion that would have to be hacked away or mowed down with a brush hog.

There are saints here and sinners and what seems a whole schoolyard of children, way too young to die. “Red and yellow, black and white—they are precious in his sight.”

“Four of the children whom we had learned to love and cherish are sleeping in their graves,” Cocia Hartog wrote in 1910, in “Indian Mission Sketches,” not even a decade after the Rehoboth land was purchased. “It was only two weeks after her baptism that Etta Becenti died without fear,” Hartog says, “knowing in whom she believed.”

If there ever was a marker for Etta Becenti’s grave, it’s gone now, victim of relentless spring winds that, for weeks, make the desert landscape seem uninhabitable and erase the names of kids who’ve carved their initials in the sandstone rock on the hill to the east, beside the newest grave—Christopher Charles Johnson, a helicopter pilot killed not long ago in Iraq. His dad teaches at the school.

Almost a century ago Cocia Hartog told her readers that Native people suffered from “a great fear of death.” She described cultural rituals that, in some cases, have changed significantly, but still linger: “When one is about to die, the relatives usually forsake him and leave him to die alone,” Hartog wrote. “The horse of the deceased is killed at the grave, while his blanket, beads or other valuables are buried with him.”

I don’t know if there are horses here, but there certainly are beads and other valuables.

On the slope at the eastern edge, five rows of white crosses stand, fatigued as war-weary sentries—40 or more of them, some of their comrades already broken or fallen. In a cemetery that’s as heavily decorated as this is with American flags, it’s impossible not to think of those crosses as marking something military. But they bear no names. They were placed there, it seems, long after the original burials to mark the graves of Native people brought to the mission to die. Through many of its early years, Rehoboth Christian Hospital came heir to dozens of suffering souls whose lives were at an end—sickly men and women delivered to their doorstep out of the very fear Ms. Hartog describes.

At Rehoboth there were rules for Christian burials back then, just as there were rules at cemeteries all over the continent, rules long since loosened. It’s quite likely that no one knows how many dead are here beneath the tawny soil. For every stone still standing, every wooden cross in those lines, how many more markers are gone?

But the joy is that they are all here together, all these people, all these stories.

The Christian Reformed Church has been in McKinley and San Juan County, New Mexico, at Zuni and Rehoboth and more than a dozen Navajo towns or villages for more than a century; in light of the stories of Native missions in North America, a century is almost forever. But it would be difficult to find any single place in all that open country that tells the story better than the Rehoboth cemetery.  In its silence it is a testimony to the persistence of faith, the commitment of men and women, Native and Anglo, who for 100 years have sought to bring something of eternal substance to those whom some of us used to call “our Indian cousins.” Today, when we look back, it’s vividly clear that not all the efforts were as blessed as white folks might have thought.

But now think of this: someday—maybe soon, maybe not—a trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.

Someday the brush will fall back and Rehoboth Cemetery will come alive.

Stand out there yourself some morning, in the bright New Mexico sun—stand out there alone and marvel at what that day will bring: in the twinkling of an eye, graves—even the unmarked—will be opened triumphant for a host of witnesses stepping out of the desert dust in a blaze of color, a museum of turquoise. And imagine them—men and women, boys and girls, ancients and stillborn, red and white, singing together in a chorus of Navajo, English, Zuni, Dutch, and

Spanish, a chorus of praise.

From the new church at Rehoboth, from the brand-new high school gym, it’ll take you no more than 15 minutes to walk out there—maybe a half-mile due south of the old Mission House.

Wander through the plots, sift through the stories, take note of the love and care all around. Make it a pilgrimage. And then dream of graves razed, the whole place suddenly opened.

“Never again will there be an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years,” says the prophet Isaiah.

Every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess.

That’s been the vision of Rehoboth—our own vision here—for more than 100 years.  n

About the Author

James C. Schaap is a writer who lives in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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