Monday, November 4, 2013

Grave Dressing

Spring is the time of naissance. Stories abound about the rituals and celebrations of spring that bind our human fates with the cycle of nature. It’s during spring that the sun teases the plants from the ground, and the animals fill the barns and fields with their young. In central Appalachia, it’s during this season of birth that the long-standing ritual of grave dressing begins.
Central Appalachia is in the oldest mountain range in North America. In this beautiful and rugged place, that I call home, small towns and communities are the way of life. Small town life taught me to have a strong sense of place and a great love for, and pride in, my heritage. My Appalachian legacy includes its folktales, legends, superstitions, and traditions. One of its oldest traditions is the rituals that surround death.
Family cemeteries, or graveyards as they tend to be called, dot the mountainsides and church yards in this rural part of the country. The number of graves in these cemeteries range from a single family to generations of the same family. In central Appalachia, graves are not kept to areas designated as cemeteries, but can be found on a hillside adjacent to a house or even in the backyard.
Often, I pass by a small lot next to the road; on it is a mobile home that has a grave in the front yard. The teddy bear tombstone claims it is a child’s burial place. Even when the yard isn’t mown, the area around the tombstone is pristine. As the years go by, the absence of toys in the yard and the empty front porch is like a spotlight on the child’s grave. No matter what story I imagine about this place, there are no happy endings.
Funeral services in central Appalachia are still dictated by religious practices and family traditions. As old-fashioned as they may seem to some, in truth, today’s funerals bear little resemblance to those of a hundred years ago, when families took care of the wake and the burial. The absence of undertakers and funeral homes as well as the lack of church buildings made home services the norm. In those days, the women prepared the body while the men hand-dug the grave. The coffin was made by the local carpenter or a family member who was handy with tools, and the women lined it with cloth or a funeral quilt – a quilt made for this express purpose.
Houses were built with a window in the front room wide enough to get the coffin into the house, and the body was always ‘brought home’ to be made ready for burial. If the family owned a clock, it was stopped at the time of death and any mirrors in the home were covered. Often pennies, or sometimes nickels, were placed over the closed eyes of the dead.
When everything was prepared, the wake was held before burial. Since a hundred years ago, ministers in this area were in short supply, there was no actual service. Family and neighbors brought food, and often moonshine, to the home of the deceased. Women were supposed to cry over the dead while the men stayed in the background. At night, family members were expected to “set-up” with the body, because an old mountain superstition decreed the soul didn’t leave the body until twenty-four hours after death; therefore, someone had to keep the soul company and make sure the devil didn’t steal it away.
When the undertaker arrived in this area, death practices began to change. The modern funeral home changed them even more, but some of the old rites are still practiced. Today, funerals may take place at the funeral home or in a church instead of the deceased’s home, but the tradition of ‘setting up’ with the body is still observed. After friends and family pay their respects, a practice now called ‘visitation,’ chosen family members stay with the body all night.
Internment in a family graveyard, instead of a large public cemetery, is still the norm in central Appalachia. Location of the cemetery dictates how the burial takes place. Family plots are often on steep ridges in out of the way places. Some don’t have roads that are passable, making it impossible for a hearse or even a four-wheel drive vehicle to get the body to the grave. In days past, a wagon pulled by a horse or mule would be used to get the coffin to the graveyard. Today, the coffin must be carried to a grave that has to be hand-dug because it is impossible for a backhoe to get to the grave site. Burial is also done by hand, with the pallbearers lowering the casket and filling in the grave.

The old family cemeteries are some of central Appalachia’s most beautiful landmarks because families embrace the ritual of grave dressing. This seasonal activity is especially important after winter has ravaged the landscape. Decorating family graves is as much an Appalachian tradition as eating soup beans with cornbread. For some, it’s a simple affair of mowing grass, removing old arrangements and installing new ones, but to some families, it is a ritual that has become a family ceremony as worshipful as the funeral.
When the grass greens and the sun warms the earth, it’s time to make the trek to the family graveyards. This is an important ritual for my family, and on the appointed day, I arrive at our family cemetery early, so I can wander through the uneven rows of old graves alone. The beauty of spring juxtaposed with death doesn’t escape me. I sit under a poplar tree and look out at my history; the most recent chronicle being the graves of my sister and father. As the breeze, with winters chill still upon it surrounds me, I think of these lines from Walt Whitman’s poem “Leaves of Grass”: 

I WAS looking a long while for a clue to the history of the past for myself, and for these chants—and now I have found it;

It is not in those paged fables in the libraries, (them I neither accept nor reject;)

It is no more in the legends than in all else;

It is in the present—it is this earth to-day;

When my mother arrives, it takes some time to spread out the paraphernalia she needs to dress the graves: bottle of soapy water, gallon of freshwater, bottle of baby oil, brush, various rags, and of course, two large bags that hold the new arrangements. I discover she has added a new tool to her arsenal - a pair of small grass clippers, battery operated, and fully charged. I ask her what I can do, but she waves me away while she, “cuts a little grass” around the graves. I watch her for a while, amazed at how she can bend and cut so carefully and methodically when at eighty-nine, she suffers from arthritis and osteoporosis. Her back is bowed from an old fracture to her spine. I know she suffers pain, but it doesn’t stop her; it merely slows her down.
While she cuts, I wander around the cemetery. I see by the cut grass and bright spring flowers that other family members have been there to tend their branch of the family tree, but there are many graves waiting to be dressed, their vases holding weathered Christmas arrangements. It saddens to me that the favored flower, the silk red rose, looks the worst after a winter’s 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 for the day when the side of the tombstone she shares with my father, bears not only her date of birth, but her date of death. I realize I have accepted the job of grave dresser, even though I was never formally asked.
When the grave markers are rinsed and dried, she lets me apply the baby oil. This is her special trick to make the headstones 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. I am merely a grave dresser in training. My mother 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 watch her creating these arrangements, 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.
While she works, she talks of times gone by, of relatives I barely remember, if at all. As is her way, she speaks of them in present tense, reminding me her brother Roy “won’t eat breakfast without gravy on the table,” and her sister Frieda, “wore my new high heels out to the coal pile and left them. It snowed and ruined them, and Mommy didn’t even whip her.”
Mother tells me of coming to this graveyard when she was a girl. She recalls that every spring, the whole family from all around, gathered for a big dinner on the ground. This dinner coincided with the coming of the traveling preacher. The family would hold a service at the cemetery for the dead who’d been buried in the time since the preacher had last visited. They called this custom of having a funeral after the fact, funeralizing.
While I listen, I stand by, handing her pieces of Styrofoam and strips of florists’ green tape that she uses to anchor the flowers into the vases. I feel like a nurse handing instruments to a surgeon. When at last, she stands back to observe her creations, wondering aloud if they are secure enough, I see her eyes rest of the names of my sister – Jeannine, and my father, Frank. It’s now when she makes a remark that has “missing you” somewhere in it, and I know it’s almost time to leave. This year, her “missing you” remark was followed by “I’ll be seeing you soon.”
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 back at the graves. She doesn’t comment on them, instead points out the kaleidoscope of colors that the cemetery now boasts. When she’s 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 doesn’t complain. The aches and pains of old age she bears in silence. She puts that pain alongside the grief she’s born for twenty years after losing her oldest child, added now to her newest grief of two years, the loss of my father.
I watch her drive away and go back to the graves we’ve just tended. I sit down between them and turn my face toward the breeze. I breathe deeply. 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 a sense of peace like I have been blessed by the hand of God. My heart is full with the blessing of it. I know that one day soon, I will be the one conducting this ritual, and my heart accepts it. I know, too, the day will come when I will take my place here next to my family, and other hands will dress my grave when spring returns to the mountains.