Twelve years ago, my parents noticed that many of the older graves in our family cemetery no longer receive flowers for Memorial Day or at any other time of year. Even the ones that traditionally had been decorated every year no longer received visitors. I imagine that those who traditionally cared for them were people like my grandparents who have passed.
My dad commented on how lonely some of the graves seemed. Forgotten, he said. These aren’t just stone slabs in the ground. He pointed out that each grave represents someone’s parent, sibling, child, friend. Each grave represents someone who walked this earth, breathed air, lived and died. To someone at some time, every person buried in that cemetery was the most important person in the world.
My folks had this conversation the day before Memorial Day 2010. The two sprang into action — my dad heading to the garage and my mom to the dollar store. Dad constructed simple wooden crosses using lumber he had on hand. My mom purchased inexpensive silk flowers to attach to each cross. And by the following day, they had enough wooden crosses adorned with flowers to place at every grave in Garrett Cemetery where some of my immediate family is buried.
By the following year, they had painted all those crosses white, echoing the simplicity of the famous white crosses in Arlington.
Sadly, we lost another one of our own this year. My aunt Maryann left this world in August, joining her parents, husband and child in the little cemetery down the road from my home. My dad went back to the garage to assemble another white cross.
Thirty-five souls rest in that cemetery and thirty-five white crosses have been lovingly placed by my parents again this year.
They are modest people and don’t do it for the attention. It is a simple act but one with great impact. It is a moving sight, these white crosses. My mother insists that if every person who takes flowers to a grave would take an extra bouquet for someone who doesn’t receive visitors, the world would be a better place. I think she is right.
I wish I knew more of the stories behind the headstones but I do know some. My grandma’s brother died of influenza, just a toddler in 1922. My aunt and uncle — two of my favorite humans ever — each died young, leaving behind a hole in our family like none other.
My great-great-uncle Hobart Garrett was a farmer who died an old bachelor. There is an empty space next to him that I presume was for a wife who he never met living out here in the country. Hobart’s sister was a school teacher who had no kids of her own and who seemed to not really like kids. I have a small hand bell she used at the school as well as a handful of postcards, textbooks and even a purse that belonged to her.
All 35 were people just like you and me. All of them had a story to tell. Even if we don’t remember their stories, it’s nice to honor their memories.
My parents seem to think that no one else notices their crosses but I notice and I’m glad they do it.
If you’re out and about decorating graves this Memorial Day, perhaps consider taking extra flowers for a neglected grave or at least take a moment to brush the grass clippings off some headstones. Small gestures such as these may not change the world but you never know who is watching and besides, you’ll know that you did something nice for someone who can offer nothing in return.