When we buried Todd, I longed to sleep at his gravesite. I actually took my sleeping bag to the service and was nearly asleep next to his mound of dirt when Todd’s best friend roused me and escorted me away so I wouldn’t freeze or be eaten by coyotes (neither of which were likely, but he was being kind). For months, I longed to take a sleeping bag, drive back to Todd’s grave, and curl up next to him. I physically needed to be near him, but winter, rutted-out gravel roads, and hip surgeries kept me from sleeping there the first year.
Instead, I’d go sit with him. I’d drive back or walk when I could, maybe take a small cooler and a blanket, and spend a few hours talking to Todd and his parents, who are also buried there. I’d play music for him, cry, drink a beer, listen to the birds chatter, and always come away feeling better.
The same urge still hits me a few times a month–I have to be close to him–so I go as often as I can and spend an afternoon with him, sometimes in a folding chair, sometimes sitting on the ground, and sometimes laying right on top of him. If the sun is out and the ground is dry, I can spread out and doze off.
Hanging out with the dead is not weird or unusual. Appalachia has a tradition of Decoration Day, and most Southern churches have Homecomings, which are in the same vein. On these occasions, in late spring and early summer, families clean and decorate their loved ones’ graves and then spend the afternoon.
Here’s how “Forgotten Tradition: Picknicking in the Graveyard” in Appalachian Magazine describes the day: “It may seem like a ghastly thing to someone from this generation, the sight of families laying out blankets alongside the headstone of a passed loved one and feasting upon fried chicken, but for us, it was a tradition. A classic American mountain tradition that would culminate with a game of hide-n-seek or tag in a freshly decorated Appalachian graveyard. We did not run from death as so many these days seem to do, nor did we attempt to amuse ourselves with devices that removed the thought of our own demise to the back-burner of our consciousness.”
Where I live, many families clean and decorate headstones with elaborate floral arrangements on Memorial Day weekend. They take pictures and share them on social media.
I love that these special days provide ways of staying connected with our loved ones in a world that tries to make death and grief remote and unnatural. I love how these days also celebrate life–ours and the lives of those we’ve lost.
I know Memorial Day is a day to honor those serving our country, and in particular, those who have died in that service, and I mean no disrespect. For many, Memorial Day weekend feels like another unwelcome holiday, another miserable long weekend, to spend alone while others attend cook-outs or parties. If you’re reading this blog, I want you to know that however you choose to memorialize your person on this long weekend, it is the right way.