By Donna Kallner
In small towns and rural areas across the U.S., friends and neighbors recently took their kids and grandkids to their hometown Memorial Day parades. We all enjoy seeing the fire engines and antique cars, and waving to loved ones who march with the band. We teach kids (and anyone who wasn’t raised right) to stand and show respect as members of the local VFW post walk by. What we sometimes forget, though, is how our grandparents or great-grandparents once spent the day.
My grandma always called it Decoration Day. It was a time for cleaning graves to honor the dead. Military veterans’ graves were marked with small flags. Loved ones’ tombstones were adorned with fresh (or fresh plastic) flowers, or you planted annuals or tended perennials in family plots and church cemeteries.
As families pull up roots to look for opportunities elsewhere, as young people move away from their hometowns and as elders who had time for such tasks die out, rural communities are faced with a difficult question: Who will tend the graves? Additional factors like weather, climate change, economic challenges, and the mysteries of human behavior make the story even more complicated.
Here’s the grave news from a few rural communities.
Kearney, Nebraska. In Buffalo County, Nebraska, some of the 31 known rural cemeteries are maintained by churches. Others are cared for by families. But some of the caretakers-of-record are deceased, and no one knows who, if anyone, is now responsible. For example, the Kearney Hub reported that the tax-exempt request for Dove Hill cemetery lists as its caretaker one Miriam Brandt. Brandt died in 2012. The county doesn’t know if someone else has assumed responsibility, although someone has left plastic flowers there. The unmarked, unfenced burial ground is overgrown by tall grasses. The lettering on its one standing gravestone is illegible, likely because of cattle rubbing against it.
Unless neighbors come forward to tell the county board a cemetery is neglected or abandoned, local government’s options are limited. Many people don’t know that, or don’t want to seem disrespectful to the dead by complaining. They may take on the job informally and then move on ― or die themselves, taking the secret of that good deed to the grave and leaving no one behind to carry on.
Upstate New York. While there are rural cemeteries that want for TLC, there are plenty more that are well cared-for, lovely green spaces. Writer Jeanne Sager owns a home on a rural road across from such a cemetery. Earlier this year she wrote:
There are a handful of funerals each year, when the sounds of an excavator digging into the earth rouse me from my bed. Visitors stream in from out of town, and each side of our small country road is lined with the cars of mourners. But most visitors keep to themselves. They leave a few flowers on the appointed grave and plant flags on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but otherwise are as quiet and respectful as you’d ever hope your neighbors’ visitors to be.
Nevertheless, according to research by realtor.com, Sager writes, the median home price in ZIP codes with a cemetery is about 12% lower than similar homes in other areas. “That’s just about the same drag on prices one would experience with a homeless shelter nearby, although not as bad as a strip club.” While those sound more like the problems of areas with greater population, anything perceived to depress home values concerns rural homeowners. And in areas where school funding and other services are tied to property valuation, a poorly maintained tax-exempt family cemetery can become very unpopular with those who have no ties to the deceased.
With or without disputes and lawyers, cemetery upkeep is costly.
Bell Town, Tennessee. In 2001 and 2008, someone with no ties to the deceased bought the property on both sides of the half-acre Bell Town Cemetery. Members of this traditionally African American community have used an easement to access the cemetery, which contains 30 graves dating back to Emancipation. In general, burial grounds are considered sacred and protected. But as The Tennessean reported, “In a conflict of civil rights and civility, threats and arrests dominate a disagreement over property access between the landowners who control the area surrounding the cemetery and generations of the deceased’s families.” When locked gates went up, impeding access to the cemetery, it took lawyers, law enforcement and social media to help family members get in to visit the graves of their loved ones. What they found was apparently an unlicensed solid waste disposal business ― as well as vandalized headstones and animal manure on the graves. The property owner was ordered to stop all dumping on his property, and remove all waste to a facility permitted to receive such waste. The family started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for restoration of the cemetery.
Bedias, Texas. With or without disputes and lawyers, cemetery upkeep is costly. The Bedias Cemetery Association is responsible for two burial grounds that have graves dating back to the 1800s. The association’s responsibilities include mowing, purchasing rock for the road and sand for settling graves, and removing limbs and debris. Weather and economic conditions present fiscal challenges, and donations aren’t keeping up. So the association now encourages friends and families of the dearly departed to consider memorial donations instead of flowers. Donors are asked to include their address with their donation so the association can send a receipt, as well as send a card to the family advising of the memorial given on behalf of their loved one. It’s an option that may become increasingly common, and may in fact be happily embraced by family members who are too distant to tend graves themselves.
Buckingham, Florida. When Hurricane Irma hit southwest Florida last year, in one private burial ground wind splintered many of the trees and water from the flooded Orange River moved some above-ground burial vaults off their foundations. The Buckingham Cemetery in rural Lee County has 196 recorded graves, including those of 11 Civil War veterans. When the water receded and the ground firmed up, family members and volunteers showed up with equipment and manpower to clean up the grounds and replace vaults that had been floating. If anyone posted it on Facebook, I must have missed how they had spent the previous weeks cleaning up storm damage at their own homes, probably without power or air conditioning and possibly without running water. But that’s what rural people do after tornadoes, blizzards and other natural disasters.
Kongiganak, Alaska. Sometimes, though, there’s not much sheer effort of will can do to solve a problem, and no amount of money can stop the forces of nature. As climate change affects western Alaska, the permafrost is starting to thaw. According to a National Public Radio report, “Digging into melting permafrost can weaken it even more. And places where there’s been a lot of digging — like a cemetery — can be the first to go.” Family members might have to wear hip waders to visit their loved ones in the Kongiganak cemetery, and some graves are underwater. Newer burials are above ground, on low wooden platforms where white, wooden boxes cover the casket. The tribal administrator says they hope to move all the graves to higher ground but don’t have the money to do so. And you have to wonder: How high is high enough?
Sutherland Springs, Texas. The overwhelming scale of a problem like climate change is, perhaps, one reason people don’t want to talk about it until maybe they have to wear hip waders to visit their own loved ones’ graves. And just think about how overwhelming it must be to live in a small town with a cemetery that might fill 15 plots a year, and be trying to figure out how to bury 26 people all at once. Last fall a gunman opened fire on worshipers at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people. No matter where you stand on gun control, you have to mourn for a community when it suffers that kind of loss. According to a New York Times report, “the cemetery’s caretakers never before faced the colossal dilemma they do now: How to bury so many people in such a short span of time.” Imagine the sexton, and probably her successor, spending a lifetime removing faded tributes from the graves of the victims on the anniversary of their death, and cleaning windfalls from the headstones of those the tragedy left without loved ones to tend their graves.
Mitchell, Indiana. A friend of mine honors her mom on Memorial Day by sending flowers and making a donation for maintenance of distant family graves to which she herself has little connection. It was important to her late mother, so my friend upholds the tradition. It isn’t in my budget to send money or travel two states over to tend family graves myself. I feel guilty for doing neither. My elderly mom has dementia, and now talks about her own mother as if she were still living. But for years before the disease riddled her memory, it bothered Mom that she could no longer travel back to her hometown of Mitchell, Indiana, to tend her mother’s grave on Decoration Day.
My parents won’t have graves for my sister and me to feel guilty about. It came as a surprise when our Methodist parents told us they wanted to be cremated. They had practical reasons, and I’m sure they both prayed on it before they each picked out the wood for the double cremains box my woodworking father made to solemnize the decision. It’s half maple for Mom, half black walnut for Dad, and the two boxes are dovetailed together just as my parents were for 63 years. I started writing this article when I visited them in March, when one of my tasks was to prepay for their cremations. While waiting to meet with the funeral director, I snapped a cell phone picture of the $395 Missouri barnwood cremation box to show my husband, who has made cremation boxes for other family members. I knew his reactions would be like mine: They get that much for barn board? and a sentimental lump in the throat.
I got another lump in the throat when he told me a family story I had never heard in our 28 years of marriage. Bill was in elementary school when his dad died and was taken back to his hometown in another state for burial. Bill’s eldest sister, a young mother by then, died unexpectedly when Bill was a young adult. The shock of her death was still fresh when a bill arrived for a grave blanket she had ordered. Grave blankets are woven swags of evergreen boughs, often decorated with pine cones and ribbons. Bill’s family hadn’t known until she was gone that she honored her dad with that Midwestern Christmas tradition.
My parents pulled up roots and moved away from their respective family farms, neither of which was large enough to support another generation. I moved away too, and put down roots in rural northern Wisconsin. I live where churches can still find enough volunteers to serve a meal after a funeral, and friends take on the task of tending graves when family members can’t. In this area, graves are often decorated with deer antlers and Green Bay Packer flags. One nearby cemetery is known as a geocache site. Geocaching is an orienteering activity whose participants tend to be respectful sorts who encourage others to replace fallen flags and behave like you know you’re on hallowed ground when you’re in a cemetery.
At the cemetery nearest my home, the grass is always neatly mowed, and trash bins are conveniently located so families don’t have to walk too far to dispose of faded flowers and weeds they’ve pulled. A hand-pump at the entrance makes it easy to water cut flowers or planted perennials and to wash up after scratching in the dirt. The lawn near a former neighbor’s grave was carpeted with creeping phlox when I visited him before Memorial Day. It’s a good place to be, dead or alive.
But Bill and I don’t have kids who will visit or tend our graves or cover us against the cold with a blanket of evergreens. So, like my parents, we’ve chosen cremation. His mom and stepfather are scattered among the willows and rose bushes on our property. My dad, who died in April, will join them after he’s reunited with my mom, who is still living. Bill and I expect to join them someday, but hopefully not soon. In the meantime, I’m sure no one will mind if I pull a few weeds at the cemetery up the hill.
Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin, where in winter a gravedigger puts down dry straw or leaves to keep soil from freezing to the truck bed when a new grave is dug so it’s easier to fill in after graveside services.