“There won’t be any grass on that one.”
I don’t remember the exact year she said it, but I remember where I was when I heard it. Shortly after my uncle died, I had gone along on a trip with my aunt and my parents to a rural cemetery in eastern Kentucky. The graveyard sits next to a small church near the house where my mother was born. A number of my kinfolk comprising four generations of family are buried there. It had been Memorial Day weekend, and we had gone to visit the gravesites. In many rural communities, Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) is not only a time to remember those who have passed on and to lay flowers on a grave. It may also be the time for maintenance of the plots: mowing, weeding, planting. The shade trees that stand along the gravesides are ones planted by the families of the souls buried there. Along with flowers for the graves, you may also take your hedge clippers or string trimmer when visiting.
My aunt’s comment was in reference to one of the graves at the Oak Hill Cemetery. Like most of the folk buried there, the deceased had been a lifelong resident of that community. She’d been the last of her family, and so there would likely be no one to tend to the site. She had passed during the winter, and since no one was nearby to plant grass or place flowers, the ground was sparsely covered with grass and weeds.
I have travelled to that part of the country many times since then. And often those trips have included visits to that cemetery, and others that are the final resting place for members of my family. Some lie in plots that were once part of a family farm: remote patches of ground that are tended by families of those buried there. There are more than 120 cemeteries in Rockcastle County.
Memorial Day’s origins in the United States date to the end of the Civil War. Decoration Day was first observed in 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate dead in Arlington Cemetery. General John A. Logan declared the date to be May 30, and said, “Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
There are more than 2,000,00 acres of land devoted to cemeteries in the United States. Some are grand memorial gardens like Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. Many are modest affairs. Others are abandoned, perhaps to be rediscovered only when another use is sought for the land.
My memories of Memorial Day and trips to country cemeteries are reminders of the importance of family and ritual in our lives. The stories of rural cemeteries are also the story of the changing population in the US. Walking among the tombstones, one notices how many people died young. Infants and young children are buried alongside their mothers who outlived them. Young widows and widowers remarried. Families of six or more were common. I have walked those sites with my grandfather, my mother and her sisters, and heard stories of how they lived, and how they died. Extended families lived together, or nearby. Families that were tied to the land for generations moved on, following opportunities for a better life. As a nation, we are now less rural. We live longer. Our families are smaller, and we often live further from one another than the generations before.
As a nation we are more mobile, wealthier and healthier. Medical miracles, including vaccines, medications and advances in treatment and techniques, mean that more of us live to adulthood. More of us live into old age. Life expectancy at birth has increased by more than 30 years in the past century. More of us can expect not only to reach retirement age, but to have up to 20 years (or more) in retirement. But while we are living longer, we are doing so with fewer family and friend supports. The median household size today is 2.6 people. And many people aged 75 and older live alone. Our challenge is finding better ways to support people as they age. How will we provide services? How will we pay for them? And how do we support the family and friends that provide the bulk of the informal and uncompensated support that makes home and community-based care possible?
Meeting the needs of older adults and the people who care for them is the mission of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. Your donations of time, talent and treasure help us pursue that mission through our direct services, research and advocacy. Thank you for your support.
Despite my aunt’s prediction, that lonely gravesite at Oak Hill she noted years ago has grown in; its grass is as thick and green as those around it. A small endowment and contributions from the families provides support for maintenance of the property.
If you want to learn more about preserving cemeteries in Ohio, visit https://www.ohiohistory.org/preserving-ohio/history-preservation-where-you-live/cemetery-preservation/