Get thee to a cemetery — it’s Decoration Day again. Whether you observe the federal holiday on Monday or the traditional date (Sunday, May 31), this is the week to take flowers to cemeteries, brush the grass clippings or dust from grave markers, and talk about the dead as you poke plastic flowers into the rain-softened earth.
Back in the day, you’d take actual flowers to the graves, either planting them or leaving them in vases. Then came the trend toward flat grave markers, often reinforced by cemetery rules to make mowing easier. Some cemeteries allow only cut flowers and live plants, in approved containers. One specifies, “Potted plants are permitted on Memorial Day only and will be removed four days later (in order to mow the lawns).”
I went with my mother to the cemetery at St. Gertrude’s Catholic Church in Forest City last week. She wanted to show me the new tombstone that she had installed, part of the end-of-life planning for herself and Dad. And then we returned with the box full of plastic flowers to decorate the family graves, in readiness for Memorial Day. First, we removed last year’s flowers from the flower pots, untying the twine that held them in place through wind storms. Then we filled each pot with a nice arrangement. Grandma and Grandpa Turck. Aunty Helen. Kathy’s grave with the polished agates set in cement, tracing shapes of woman power and peace. Older or more distant relatives got one or two stems, planted firmly next to the grave marker. Great-grandparents there and there, great-great-grandparents nearby, and all the uncannily familiar names of people dead before I was born.
After decorating the family graves, we moved on to give flowers to a few other people, who might go unremembered and undecorated. Phil and Agnes Collins once lived across the highway from Grandma and Grandpa, as good neighbors as anyone could want. Along the way, stories — a young man, dead at his own hand, so sad. Another in a motorcycle accident. I listen. These sisters, always happy despite their troubles. I don’t know what their troubles were, but understand their cheerfulness is/was admirable.
Though I’m long gone from Forest City, the names will always speak of home. I’m rooted here, on the farm, near the Crow River, in the community, even in the cemetery with the same familiar names that are still on the mailboxes up and down Highway 24 and all the county roads. Part of me will always be there.