I believe in leaving flowers on the graves of total strangers.
As a kid in a small Midwestern town, I was always fascinated by, and not particularly frightened of, our local cemetery. I’m not sure when I began leaving the flowers, but it was certainly before I left high school. The cemetery was a quiet haven far away from my peers and their preoccupations. I never had the sense that the dead were superior or aloof to those daily concerns, though. Rather, I had the strong feeling that they cared very much about the round of life: why the Silver Streaks couldn’t seem to win a single football game, or what I wanted to be when I grew up.
The first flowers I left were hand-picked wildflowers from the surrounding area, graduating to store-bought bouquets when I was older and felt more flush. Part of the fun of leaving flowers is not having a plan when I set out for the cemetery. Who will be the recipient of my largesse today? Sometimes, the choice is obvious, like the day I encountered the graves of a married couple who died very close together in 1918. I imagined them to be among the thousands who died in the Spanish influenza epidemic that often took people in the prime of life. Giving them a floral tribute seemed the least I could do.
I’m not sure how the dead receive my unlikely gesture. Would Michael Kelly, an Irish immigrant, be touched that a stranger has dropped eleven bucks on a supermarket bouquet for his headstone a century after his death, or is he literally rolling in his grave at the needless expense undertaken by a woman who has the audacity to wear pants?
Often, I’m the only living soul in the graveyard. Our culture has so successfully divorced itself from the messiness of death that we don’t go to cemeteries anymore just for fun. A hundred years ago, people would spend a Sunday afternoon at one of the newfangled garden cemeteries outside the city, bringing a picnic and hanging out with living friends among the dearly departed. You couldn’t walk into one of the fancy department stores without confronting an entire fashion department devoted to mourning clothing, and the “living” room was created to distinguish it from the room where everyone knew they would lay out the family dead: the parlor. Death was so much more a part of life back then.
Though I think we’re missing out as a culture, I don’t actually mind the fact that I’m usually the only visitor in the cemetery. The presence of living interlopers would make it that much harder to chat with my dead acquaintances. I’m happy to soldier on as a one-woman association for the beautification of the graves of the glorious dead. This I believe.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.