Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Appalachian Custom of Grave Tending

My mother and I spent yesterday afternoon tending the graves of my father and sister. Decorating family graves is as much an Appalachian tradition as eating soup beans with cornbread. Grave tending is a seasonal activity and it is especially important in the spring. When the winter snows have passed and the grass greens again, it’s time to remove the winter grave decorations and adorn the graves with spring flowers. This can be a simple affair of removing old arrangements and installing new ones, but my mother has turned it into a ritual that has become a family custom.

I met her at the cemetery; she had been there long enough to spread out her paraphernalia. At first glance, it looked like she had enough things to tend the entire cemetery, but I knew when I looked closer, I would see the following: a bottle of soapy water, a gallon of water, a bottle of baby oil, a bottle brush, various rags and of course, two large white bags that held the new arrangements.

I walked down the hill to the graves, and discovered she had added a new tool to her arsenal - a pair of small grass clippers, battery operated, and fully charged. I asked her what I could do, but she waved me away while she, “cut a little grass” around the graves. I watched her for a while, amazed at how she could bend and cut so carefully and methodically when at eighty-eight, she suffers from arthritis and osteoporosis. Her back has bowed since she fractured her spine when she fell down the basement steps eleven years ago. It was made worse two years ago when she had to have two vertebra surgically cemented together. I know she suffers pain, but it does not stop her; it merely slows her down.

While she cuts, I wander around the cemetery. I watch people come and go, replacing faded arrangements with bright spring flowers. There are many graves waiting to be dressed, their vases holding weathered Christmas arrangements. It’s sad to me that the favored flower, the red rose, looks the worst after many months of exposure. I find many arrangements whose roses are now the color of dried blood tinged in gray, and I want to change them to spring pinks, yellows, and oranges.

Half an hour later, my mother is ready to clean the grave markers. She lets me pour the soapy water over them and use the soft brush to scrub away the dirt, taking special care to get inside the letters of the names. Mother watches me, instructing me like I have never done this before and I get the sense that she is making sure I know what to do when her side of the marker she shares with my father, bears not only her birth date but the date of death. Then it will be my job to carry on the tradition of tending the family graves.

When the grave markers are rinsed and dried, she lets me apply the baby oil. This is her special trick to make the bronze markers shine. I rub it over the entire surface, taking special care to get inside the letters of the names. When she is satisfied, I step back and let her put the flowers in the vases. I have not earned the right to do this, not yet. She makes the arrangements herself, and they are beautiful. They are full and lush, but not too tall, so the spring winds won’t blow them away. My sister’s and father’s arrangements are just alike, and in my mind’s eye, I can see bent over her work, counting the orange tiger lilies, pink mums, yellow and orange zinnias to make sure there are equal numbers in each arrangement. There are sprigs of greenery and ivy, baby’s breath, and her signature touch – long green blades that look like sea grass.

I stand by her like a nurse ready to hand instruments to a surgeon, while she uses pieces of Styrofoam and strips of florists’ green tape to anchor the flowers into the vases. At last, she stands back to observe her creations, wondering aloud if they are secure enough and if the flowers have moved out of place. I know it isn’t time to pack up yet because she spends another ten minutes checking the flowers, moving some around, and generally fussing over the arrangements.

At last, she stands for a minute in silence, then picks up a bag and starts packing her things. I help her put everything away and then carry it to her car. I walk back for her and together we walk to our cars. When we get to the road, she turns and looks down the hill at the graves she has spent the last two hours working on. She doesn’t comment on them, instead points out the kaleidoscope of colors that the cemetery now boasts. When she is finished, I help her get in her car, seeing the pain on her face as she uses her hand to pick up her leg. We don’t talk about it because she does not complain. The aches and pains of age she bears in silence. She puts it alongside the grief she’s born for twenty years after losing her oldest child, my sister, and newest grief of two years now, for the loss of her husband, my daddy.

I watch her drive away and go back to the graves we’ve just tended. I sit down between the graves. The wind whispers in the trees and I turn toward it. I breathe deeply and my hair blows back from my face. I imagine the wind says, thank you. After a while, I stand to leave and see others moving about the cemetery. I feel such a sense of peace like I have just experienced a church service. My heart is full with the blessing of it. I go to my car and drive home, knowing before long, it will be time to repeat the ritual.


  1. I have seen her do this just described her perfectly. I didn't think in a million years I would be sitting at a nurse's station in a university hospital reading about it and being able to imagine every move. You made tears stream down my face at this desk.

    Love ya, Ginger

  2. Mrs. Elswick,
    I really appreciate this blog post. It made me think of the time before I left to go back to school when my grandmother, my aunt and I drove over to the cemetery in Castlewood to decorate the grave-sites of our deceased relatives. The process is very much as you describe, take away the old arrangements, scrub the gravestone, and fit in the new flower arrangements.

    Grave tending is a practice that gave us an opportunity to talk about past experiences with them and what they were like as people. But the thing that really struck me-- to this very day--was the way that my grandmother spoke of my relatives in the present tense as if they were still alive, instead of in the past tense. I don't think that my grandmother was being eccentric; she was not confused about the fact that they were dead. But her language revealed the way that their presence still lives in our lives, even after their death. Afterwards, this experience made me reflect on how there is not a simple division between life or death, at least not in how someone's presence influences our lives.

    I appreciate your post because it reminded me of this great memory I had, and it is always nice to know that other folks have similar experiences.

    Thank you,
    Aaron McG.

    P.S. I really enjoy your blog.

    1. Thank you Aaron! Isn't it wonderful to be connected to a place with its traditions and rituals?