Out in the counties, Decoration Day is a pre-Memorial Day sacrament. Families drive in from all over to tidy-up plots, to place flowers both real and otherwise, and to remember. On Saturday, I rode with my friend Melinda to Canaan Cemetery in Marshall, Arkansas for “Decoration.” Kids running through rows of headstones, old women teetering under enormous floral sprays, young mothers manicuring grass with garden shears. Busy, somber, reflective.
I’ve lived in the South all my life and this was the first Decoration I’ve ever seen. No one in my family is comfortable with grief, I suspect. We have always avoided sadness and the places that remind us of it. I think we’ve missed out on an important part of the cycle, though. There is a healing that comes from housekeeping a grave. There is also the idea of communal permission to accept – however tragic or timely – that we die.
For folks in Marshall, Canaan is the hard evidence of who they are. Men walked the stone rows swapping stories and connections because Canaan is their ancestral record. The oral tradition of Decoration was around long before the internet let us find history in a couple of clicks. Here, a woman can touch the weathered letters of her great-great grandmother’s name and count the tiny stones around it to connect to her maternal losses.
We stayed long enough for an unanticipated light rain that reminded me of the day Melinda buried her husband. Although it was scorching Arkansas August, the wind blew suddenly cool at Canaan that day and carried the stark notes of Taps into the hills.
There are two hundred years of open arms in that place. A gesture like that is bound to create its own weather.