Saturday, May 23, 2020 – Live to Blog from Just Outside a Cemetery
Happy Memorial Day! Really now, doesn’t it sound just a bit odd to wish someone a “happy” Memorial Day? How about this? Have a “Reflective Memorial Day.” No, that doesn’t work. How about, have a “Memorable Memorial Day!” No, too many “mem” sounds. I’ll keep working on it and get back to you.
The Adventures of Chickenman
Episode 38 – The Wonderful White Winged Weekend Warrior has followed the Teddy Bear to a hotel. Now what?
Cemeteries and Memorial Day
We have a spectacular view of Maryland National Memorial Cemetery from our bedroom, kitchen, and my office windows. We actually enjoy the view though Clemencia started refering to it as a “park” to avoid creeping out our visitors.
We not only love the view but we like the location for at least one reason that is extremely pragmatic: nobody will be building anything else on that site in our life times. It also means we have a sound buffer between us and busy U.S. Highway 1.
Memorial Day has become just another vacation day for many people, however, for me it has always been associated with cemeteries. When I was very young, and had no choice about where I was made to go with my parents, Memorial Day was when we loaded up the car with flowers and started making the rounds to visit the graves of various dead relatives.
To appease me, we’d turn on the radio and listen to the Indianapolis 500 as we drove from cemetery to cemetery. At that time the race was still being held on Memorial Day rather than the Sunday before. It was a hot, sticky, dusty, and smokey trip. Generally, I hated it and would have done anything to get out of it.
It was hot and sticky because Memorial Day in Iowa is often very hot and very humid. Cars were not airconditioned at that time…at least not the cars my family could afford.
It was dusty because my parents seemed to have an aversion to driving on anything but back roads. Back roads in Iowa were, at that time, graveled with a rock that created a thick, bright white chalky dust when you drove over them. It is not an exaggeration when I tell you that a car driving fast down an Iowa road in that era looked like it had a vapor trail similar to the one you’d see on the occasional jet flying overhead. That chalky dust got everywhere, including inside the car. It was really tough to breathe.
Add to it that my dad was a smoker – Camels, unfiltered. We couldn’t lower the windows because of the dust from the gravel. We had a most fatal choice – suck in dust or suck in smoke. Usually it was the smoke.
Of all the graves we visited I think there was only one that I associated with a person I knew anything about – Uncle Will. I don’t recall if I ever met him, but I was named after him…or so I’ve been told. I got my middle name from him – William. I got my first name, Tom, from my dad – whose given name was Carman Chester. I guess he preferred his nickname, Tom. Go figure, eh?
As I got older I became a Scout (Cub then Boy) and got to hang out at our hometown cemetery on Memorial Day. In our town we’d have a Memorial Day parade that ended at a small Veteran’s Memorial in the heart of the cemetery. All of us Scouts would march in the parade then, once at the memorial, line up and stand at attention during the ceremony. The ceremony usually included a brief speech from the Commander of the local American Legion chapter, followed by one of the older Scouts reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Then two trumpeters would play taps. One would be next to the memorial and the other would be about 100 yards away elsewhere in the cemetery playing the echo part. It was, as I remember, quite beautiful.
Remember that Memorial Day was usually really hot and humid? That produced an fun side show at the ceremony. We’d watch the other Cub and Boy Scouts to see which one passed out first from the heat before the end of the ceremony. Really…they did. It was nearly as cool as the next thing that would happen.
But the really exciting part came at the very end. All of the veterans from the American Legion, who had marched in the parade with their guns, would fire off a 21 gun salute. That would signal a mad, but dignifed, dash by the young Scouts to collect as many spent rifle shells as they could before the Scoutmaster whisper/yelled at them to get back in line.
In my teens, when I worked for my dad at the cemetery as a grave digger and mower, we would prepare that same cemetery for the ceremony. We’d put in long hours making sure the cemetery grass was nicely cut, all of the grass around the stones was trimmed, and the gravesites were readied for the flowers that families would deliver.
My dad absolutely hated the clean up period after Memorial Day as the flowers began to rot and stink. It was his job to clean up all of the flowers and, before they had gotten bad enough to remove, to mow around them. It irritated him so much that, before he died, he put in his last instructions that there were to be no flowers at his gravesite. There never have been. However, Boomer did make a wrought iron hook which he put next to dad’s grave so that flowers could be hung from it. This meant the cemetery groundskeeper could easily mow or weed whack around it without disturbing the flowers.
Long funeral services also bothered my dad so he also made us promise that his would not be more than 10 minutes in length. It came in at 9 minutes, 18 seconds, if I remember correctly. Yes, I timed it. It seemed the right thing to do.
Memorial Day 2020
As I reflect on Memorial Days of my past, I can’t help but wonder what this Memorial Day is going to be like. With 96,983 reported dead at this moment from COVID-19 in the United States, it looks like we could hit 100,000 right on Memorial Day.
The exceptional cruelty of COVID-19 is that spouses, partners, family, and children could not be with their departed when they passed. In most cases they cannot even gather with friends or a support system to grieve, process the loss, or celebrate the life of their deceased.
What will Memorial Day be like for these survivors? Where will they go to remember the departed when many of them are not yet even in cemeteries?
I don’t have an answer but I do have a suggestion. If you know your departed one’s favorite space, and if you are able go there safely, go. I can’t help but believe that they will be there already in spirit. When you are in that space, tell them everything you wanted to say to them before they passed but never had the chance to – even if all of it wasn’t loving. Closure is about love and truth. The most fortunate of us get to bring the love. The least fortunate of us need to bring the truth. For the vast number of people between those two, it may be a mixture of both love and truth. The most important thing is that you do closure in a way that works for you. The departed is at peace. You are the one remaining. Do what you need to do so you can let them go, if only eventually, and live the life you were meant to live.
To everyone who has suffered a loss due to COVID-19 I am sending you a virtual hug and doing what we Quakers always do: holding you in the Light.
Stay safe, be well, keep calm, keep washing your hands, keep wearing your mask, and keep remembering your departed and what brought all of us to this time and circumstance.