Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
(Nor for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)
Walt Whitman, 1865
American poet Walt Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” in the summer of 1865, just months after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The poem is an elegy to Lincoln, perhaps the most prominent casualty of the prolonged and bloody American Civil War, but it also reflects generally on mourning and coming to terms with death, that universal experience.
Like many Americans, I have ancestors who fought in every major North American conflict since the French and Indian War and the Revolution. At least nine of my kinsmen died in the Civil War, including Confederate Brigadier General Carnot Posey, who managed to survive Gettysburg but succumbed to infection from a minor wound four months later (uncannily, in the same dormitory room where he had studied law at the University of Virginia). Other family members survived combat or distinguished themselves in other ways, like Major Robert Kelley Posey, one of the famous Monuments Men I’ve written about before, who helped recover Europe’s most valuable artwork stolen by the Nazis. Without question, my family is proud to remember these heroic souls, especially the ones who lost their lives in battle. However, those of us alive today never knew them personally, so our recognition remains in the abstract.
In the South, every spring brings “Decoration” season, when just about everyone, not just military families, honors deceased family members by taking flowers to their graves. Rural southerners in particular make a big production of it. Some churches plan all-day events on Sundays, with worship service in the morning, “dinner on the ground” (which is lunch, not dinner, and not actually served “on the ground,” but “on the grounds” of the church, in air-conditioned “fellowship halls” in contemporary times). After dinner lunch, there’s a singing in the afternoon, and then everyone heads over to the cemetery with their floral tributes.
I loathed Decoration Day as a kid. Four hours in church was a long time for a fidgety kid to sit quietly, even in the days before technology had not addled youngsters’ brains. The only consolation was all the wonderful food, though I was periodically annoyed when a church pastor would ask an earnest—but long winded—individual to say the blessing before we could eat. For at least ten years after my maternal grandmother died, my mother took the day off from our home church and attended services at Green’s Chapel Cumberland Presbyterian Church where her mother was interred. As a youngster, I didn’t really understand why this yearly ritual was so important to her.
Some family members and friends have earned their livings in what I’d call memorial service industries. They own florists or funeral homes and regularly interact with individuals in the rawest stages of grief. The conversations I’ve had with them over the years have provided me with valuable and comforting insights on death and dying in a similar manner that Whitman’s words provided solace to a nation ripped apart from war and violence.
For years, my aunt, Ralphine Moorehouse (pronounced “Raffeene” by those of us who knew and loved her), was my family’s go-to person when somebody in the community died and we needed a funeral stand of flowers to express our condolences. She worked for other florists for many years before opening her own shop, Pretty Petals, in what was once an old gas station in the exact center of Blount County, Alabama. (The marker in front of the shop documents this.) The geographic location seems appropriate because she was usually at the center of things, taking charge and making people laugh at her jokes. She was a master of both clever quips and physical comedy. She’d dance and sing or even put a fast-food bag on her head for a laugh.
She was the perfect person to comfort people who were grieving. Even though her beautiful floral handiwork was often in service of memorial and remembrance, her best gift was helping people forget their pain and grief. She often could make the saddest person smile or laugh out loud.
Indeed, remembrance is important, but sometimes we are forced—or need—to forget. My aunt suffered from Alzheimer’s in the last few years of her life. Her memory often failed her, which was extremely painful for her children and grandchildren to witness. But in many respects, the disease shielded her from the most recent grief-filled times in our family. The family didn’t tell her my father (her brother) died in 2013; the news would have been too upsetting for her. She died in 2015, just months before her nephew (my first cousin) was brutally murdered in his own home. The last few years of her life were difficult for her and her family caregivers, but she managed to retain her sense of humor and comedic talent until the end. In her final years, she could still make them laugh when she belted out a few lines from a George Jones song:
I don’t need your rockin’ chair
Your Geritol or your Medicare
Still got neon in my veins,
This grey hair don’t mean a thang…
Her granddaughter Chrissy re-opened Pretty Petals a couple of years ago in the exact same location. Now she carries on the family tradition her “Nannie Ralph” taught her, lovingly tending her grandmother’s plot so my aunt has the best-looking grave in the cemetery.
Chrissy’s daughter Ava is a clever and precocious child who inherited her great-grandmother’s quick wit. She is only five, but she can deliver a punchline: (“He’s goofy enough to be two clowns.”) Fortunately, even though Aunt Ralph is gone, our family will have still have a comedienne to amuse us for years to come.
In high school, one of my best friends, Tim McRae, worked for a funeral director and now owns McRae Funeral Home in Boaz, Alabama. Back when he first started in the funeral service industry, he got paid to stay at the chapel in the evenings, drive the hearse to pick up people who died during the night, and assist with the embalming process. As teenagers, our group of friends spent many hours playing cards and goofing around in his funeral home quarters and in the casket showroom. Long ago one of us asked him, “Aren’t you scared to sleep here with dead bodies down the hall in the embalming room? Seems pretty creepy.” He replied, “Well, the dead can’t harm you. It’s the living you have to worry about. That’s why I lock the front door when I’m alone and am not concerned about the interior doors between me and the deceased.”
After my father died, I remembered what Tim said and was a little bothered by the whole Walking Dead craze when I was in the deepest stages of grief. Once my father was no longer among the living, it distressed me that people stereotyped the dead as creepy, cannibalistic zombies. The whole thing seemed…I don’t know…discriminatory, somehow. However, once a little time passed, I became less preoccupied with my deceased father’s membership in a marginalized group, the non-living. Heck, I’ve even managed to watch Michael Jackson’s Thriller a couple of times since then.
When I go back to Alabama for one of my regular visits, I often visit Tim at the funeral home. Our behavior hasn’t altered a bit since high school. One look at each other, and we break into fits of laughter. In no way does he fit the stereotype of the somber, pale Grim Reaper funeral director. Granted, in the photograph above, we both may look a little sinister and squinty-eyed, but that’s only because we’re laughing so hysterically about something. This is our typical behavior when we’re together, but we seem to become sillier than usual at the funeral home. When I show up, we have to try hard not to revert back to ninth-grade behavior. Fortunately, his more mature wife Melissa, a public school librarian, manages to steer us gently back to adulthood. (The McRaes are active, lively members of the Boaz community. In the photo on the right, they are at some Downton Abbey-themed party a few years ago, comforting a cardboard Lady Mary Crawley after the death of Matthew.)
Like my Aunt Ralph, Tim is the sort of person who is ideally suited for his profession. He is an optimist and a pragmatist at the same time. His warm personality allows him to make friends easily. I’m certain his demeanor is truly comforting to his clients. Yet even his professional training did not insulate him from grief when his sister died unexpectedly just a few years ago. Nevertheless, I believe he has a deeper perspective on the ritual of mourning than many people have. He once told me, “Really, funerals and memorials are more for the living than for the dead. Sure, we are paying tribute to the deceased person, but family and friends need something concrete to help them come to terms with the finality of it all.”
Similarly, in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Walt Whitman even alludes to this important need for solace among the living since they, not the dead, must continue to endure life’s hardships:
I saw battle corpses, myriads of them
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d
And the enemies that remain’d suffer’d
Today is a holiday to honor the sacrifices of those who died in our wars. Rightly so, though purists will often point out the distinction between today and Veterans’ Day and scold those who thank living soldiers for their combat service. They also argue that today is a solemn day for remembrance of lives lost, not “national barbecue day.” I probably would have been one of the purists before my father died. But now, I think my friend Carla expressed the right idea in a Facebook post: “It’s May – a lovely season to gather, make food for each other, break bread, laugh heartily, and play games in the yard. In how many areas of the world can this very simple pleasure be enjoyed? Isn’t this EXACTLY what we deem important to defend? It is to me, anyway. For this dear, treasured life, I thank those who have given their lives with this ideal in their mind and heart.”
Without question, we should all remember those who paid the ultimate price in war and their families who still mourn them. When I’ve stood on battlefields important in American history, like Gettysburg, Omaha Beach, the Ardennes Forest, among others, the feeling I was standing on hallowed ground was palpable. Even nature itself seemed to acknowledge something terrible and beautiful (with acknowledgement to Yeats) transpired at those places. (I’m always struck by the stillness and sound of the wind at every battlefield I’ve ever toured.)
But I also think it’s appropriate today to appreciate a living veteran or enjoy a fun barbecue. Our beloved dead surely won’t begrudge us these lapses in protocol. Today, whether we offer flowers with pretty petals as a tribute to the dead or laugh ourselves comatose with friends and family while we watch No Time for Sergeants for the fiftieth time, most of us are just trying to navigate life’s metaphorical battlefield the best we can.
Happy Memorial Day 2017
The Academic Redneck