Southern cemetery etiquette

Southern Cemetery Etiquette

A poignant reflection on memory, change, and cemetery etiquette in a small Southern town in this essay on grief.

There’s a certain etiquette in Southern cemeteries.

I turn down the long, grassy road just before sunset, when the summer haze has blended lavenders and dusty blues across the sky in the sort of way I’ve always thought of as dusk but never named it.  I wait for two semi’s carrying farm produce to pass before I can cross the two lanes of heavily patched westbound highway.  

With any luck, they’ll push through my tiny Southern hometown without having to slow down for the two traffic lights that are the only things to force them to notice the crumbling buildings of main street, where the Saturday nights were filled with  people and laughter when Mama was a little girl ninety years ago.  

If they look beyond the decay, they’ll see a few newer buildings where structures of my own childhood once stood, now long-since replaced and replaced again.  If they stop at one of the two redlights and squint beyond where the grocery store used to be, they’ll find the decades-old “new” library that Mama loved to visit, just as she loved years ago to visit the old library next to the dry cleaners’ where she would have long, wonderful chats with Mrs. Adams and later with Nomiko while I’d dig through research books in the back and dream of being an English professor or a librarian or a writer. 

Or if they squint a little harder, they’ll see steeples of churches now exposed by the wrath of Hurricane Michael six years ago.  I still get lost driving through town because the trees, especially the pines, have been hauled away, even if there are still wind-bashed gas stations out of service and uninsured homes with caved-in roofs no longer habitable or only the “good half” still occupied.

But I’m not there with the semi drivers, nor back in time.  Not really.  Not physically, but in my head, I’m wandering through libraries and the Baptist Church where I played pipe organ when I came home from college on the weekends in the early 80’s. Even thoughts of those keyboards under my touch make my fingertips itch.

I wait for longer than necessary at the railroad tracks, knowing my rear bumper is hanging over the edge of the outside lane of the highway,  but I take the turn at an angle so I don’t bottom out in my new car. Mama and I came down this road on every visit I made back home, initially to carry flowers to her mama’s grave and later as part of my “let’s ride around!” surprise to get her out of the house when she couldn’t drive well any longer. We’d make the drive as long and as far as we dared, just looking at the Southern snow of cotton in November or the aged dogwood tree in somebody’s yard in the spring or the pretty azaleas in front of where some elderly widow’s small home—where we visited together many times fifty years ago—once stood. 

The last times we rode these roads together, there were old Trump 2016 signs and updated Trump 2020 signs in the yards, sometimes one in front of the other. Some are still there, only covered in weeds  and overgrown grass, and a new sign for the new election year or an old one with 2020 crossed out and 2024 painted over it.

I used to take her to supper on Saturday and then to Sunday dinner on every visit, give her a chance to “see and be seen,” and maybe to run into people she knew back when she was well enough to go to church. None of those places are open on this visit—closed or closed down.  I’ve struggled on this visit back home to find eating establishments that won’t kill me with too much sugar or too many carbs that drive my blood glucose sky high.  I’ve been thankful that most take at least one of my credit card types because I don’t have enough cash on me at the moment, and this town is the only place in my life where I write checks—to pay bills on Mama’s old house.  The food is all right, especially the fried okra, but no place I go has WIFI. Thankfully, I’ve been able to score at least half a bar on my phone.

Something about back home feels like another century or another country.  Here I am with my apps and AI and wearable devices and dripping with technology, and I’m as out-of-place as an adult as I was as a kid. 

I miss my next turn-off.  Is it the second or third set of dirt tracks from the end?  I used to know exactly where to turn because there were huge oaks near where my grandparents were buried.  My landmarks have been gone for decades, and even when Mama was in the car with me, we’d drive too far past the turn. It’s the epitome of Southern directions: “Turn down there across from where the big oak on the corner got struck by lightning in 1967.” The oak is long-gone but lingers in the memories of those who were present as if it still stands, and why can’t strangers passing through see it there?

I have to steer around the knee-deep ruts and mud holes to keep from tearing the bottom out of my car, especially since my cargo hold is packed heavily with things from her house that won’t make the 8-hour trip back with me to where I now live but will instead be donated because I can’t afford a house twice the size of mine to house things Mama wanted me to hold onto.  Things I’ve kept enshrined where she left them almost three years ago.

Things important only to her.  Things I wish I could take with me. 

Things she couldn’t take with her.  

Things that remind me to hoard less for myself and not visit the same guilt upon my own daughters who will one day have to clean out my treasure stashes and arrange for future homes for the things that have the most financial value instead of sentimental value. 

Mama fretted and sweated over her flowers, even into her late eighties, pulling heavy hoses to water and nurture what bloomed under her hands. Mama’s gardens are barren or overgrown or full of weeds now, and one day, all the things I have poured my life’s energy into and all the words I’ve written will cease, too, no longer anywhere to be found except perhaps on the pirate sites I so detest.

The heaviness that used to permeate my childhood home has dissipated as I’ve moved triple rows of brand new books, never read, and stirred old energies.  It’s lighter now, and strangely enough, it doesn’t weigh me down as I’d feared. My eyes are red from disturbing old dust, but the energy is no longer crushing.

I’m alone here—almost.   I brought my own ghosts with me, but in the distance, badly parked, is a car I don’t recognize. I don’t know who they’ve come to visit. Maybe the grave in the corner lot.  Maybe just stopping to cry a bit after pausing between the deeper paths.

Some of the graves here have been cared for, the grass mowed or the weeds pulled.  I pay someone every year to spruce up the two lots I visit when I’m in town, and I’m glad they were tended in the last day or two because to see them overtaken with weeds or Bahia grass would be too much for me right now. 

When I was a little girl, we would come here every weekend as a family to mow and weed and spiff up the graves of our ancestors—my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather. I still have the photos of me at seven, standing amid the sprays of flowers where they had just buried my beloved grandma, and the Southern Baptist preacher had talked about what would later become her epitaph—Proverbs 31:31. 

This is familiar territory, and I have no fear of being here.  When I was growing up, my parents went to the funerals of everyone they knew, even vaguely. Death and its aftermath have been a part of my whole life.

I drive more slowly than I can walk, even with my tendonitis flaring up after three 18-hour days of physical and emotional labor, and still not nearly done.  I’m exhausted. I’ve been on my feet too long, stepped in fire ants three times, and instead of seeing the writing on the screen, I see the writing on the wall:  my newest injury—amid Mama’s VHS recordings of “The Guiding Light” and conspiracy theories from modern commentators she’d confused with journalists of Walter Cronkite’s stature—will probably dictate another surgery to fix what I’ve broken here.

The other car here doesn’t move.  They just sit there near some other grave, their car idling, AC on in the sweltering heat and haze.

I stop at the edge of the lot where Mama is buried next to her mama and daddy, where she wanted to be buried instead of next to my dad, because in her last years, she so missed her parents and their unconditional love.

The other car doesn’t move.

With a screaming ankle, I pull myself up and out of my car, then walk the few feet to the new marble slab, the one we had to wait on for over two years because of supply chain issues during Covid and the fact that I live too far away now to keep a constant watch on matters here, and the fact that I have my own busy life and my own health concerns, and new grandbabies to take my attention. Her epitaph is the same as her mother’s, an ode to good, hard-working women who salt the earth.

I’ve brought her flowers to flank her headstone.  Silk ones in colors she would have liked, but slightly mis-matched. Planted in foil-wrapped chunks of concrete.  Fresh from the high shelf of “cemetery flowers” over the fruit and vegetable section at the Piggly Wiggly. This July sun will fade them in a week. I’ll drop blooms from her garden—whatever I can find—on her grave on my way out of town. They’ll be wilted by the time I can hit the city limit.

I stand here only a moment before the other car slowly rolls away. We have both abided by cemetery etiquette—grievers visiting their own and giving others here a wide berth out of respect and grace.  Maybe a quick nod to the other to acknowledge that we’re here for the same reasons, even if we don’t know one another, and that we understand this quiet moment in the circle of life.The silence now is deafening.  The cicadas and night birds in the distant deep woods merge with the silence, and I no longer hear them.  Only the sounds of my own unrushed breaths, my own unhurried heartbeat.

If you like the quirks of small Southern towns and mother-daughter relationships, try Book 3 of the Rites of Passage Trilogy, Midlife Visions.
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