We drove southeast from Zürich toward the birthplace of Maria Tschanen Zimmerman, my great-grandmother. I’d hoped to find family tombstones, especially for her sister, Anna. My grandmother’s only expressed wish, unfulfilled, had been to visit Switzerland. After my mother’s death this year, I felt the need to link back to her grandmother’s land, especially since it is my middle daughter’s home, and the birthplace of two of my grandchildren.

By the time we reached Wohlen bei Bern, early winter darkness forced us to pull out flashlights. We stomped around the graveyard at Die Pfarrkirche, but all we found were fairly recent graves.

church at Wohlen bei Bern
church at Wohlen bei Bern

Inside the church, the boys and I were fascinated with the manger scene, loaded with woolly sheep.

Manger scene in church at Wohlen bei Bern, Switzerland
Manger scene in church at Wohlen bei Bern, Switzerland

We read that the church was founded in 1320.

Wohlen bei Bern Die Pfarrkirche
inside church looking toward the back
Ten Commandments from 1681
Ten Commandments from 1681

So why no old gravestones, the kind my older brother and his wife found throughout the U.S. to establish our family tree on our father’s side?

In a country rich with history, even pre-dating the Romans, it didn’t make sense.

After thoroughly covering every part of the cemetery, I stopped to listen to my daughter explain that, according to Swiss law, any graves over 100 years old are removed to make space for new ones. (No, we don’t know what happens to them.)

Finally, we chose a young cinnamon rose-bush near some Zimmerman and Tschanen graves to disperse a portion of Mom’s ashes. (Mom had been an avid gardener.)

Cinnamon Rose bush in Wohlen bei Bern churchyard
Cinnamon Rose bush in Wohlen bei Bern churchyard

Tracey and the boys sang “I Am His Child,” which Jeremy and Kyle had sung to Mom on their last visit in April – and to which she had responded with deep emotion and tears. (They also sang it at the reception after her Requiem.)

For days I was frustrated that I had not been able to find my ancestors’ tombs.

Yesterday, understanding dawned, and I sighed in relief.

empty manger
empty manger

Just like the empty manger, the empty cross, and the empty tomb where they had laid the body of Jesus, someday all our tombs will be empty.
The only thing that really matters is where we go from there.

“My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence.” I John 5:13-14


sunrise over Schindellegi
sunrise over Schindellegi, Switzerland

Below is a partial clip of Jeremy and Kyle singing “I Am His Child” at the reception.

2 thoughts on “Pursuing the past, finding the future

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