Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

Heritage

The six-year-old spotted it first
From the back seat on the back road;
White, blue, and red, waving from the
Pole on the back corner of the
Back stoop of the house with the
Roll roofing and the laundry tree
Creaking in the backyard. “What’s that?
“A broken American flag?”

I see it there, yes, but those same
Stars and bars adorn the front porch
Of the fine house on the front street
With magnolias in the front yard,
And the front of the ball cap and
The front bumper of the Camry
And the coin shop on Frontage road.

I suppose I should be proud that
My child lived six years in the South
Before noticing the banner,
Or that I now no longer think
It a thing to hold in tension,
Tweeting justice from the drive-thru.

But all I can discern is how
My great-great-grandfather followed
This hand-stitched flag to a hell his
Sixteen-year-old self thought righteous.

Image: Chattanooga from Lookout Mountain, September 2017

Greens, Forgotten Means of Grace

It’s January in the mid-South, that time of year when it actually gets cold here—right before it gets warm again. For the joyful eaters among us, it’s also the time of year when our region’s normal array of fresh, seasonal vegetables goes dark. The tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash, sweet corn, green beans, okra, eggplant, ad infinitum that color our cuisine are hibernating, and we’re flirting with a breakdown at the thought of one more meal of meat and potatoes.

In God’s good design, however, there is a bright green lining to this culinary cloud: leafy vegetables. You know, Brassica oleracea and all his rowdy friends. They’re rich in calcium, vitamin K, iron, and more, and reaching peak form right as midwinter rolls in. Southerners subconsciously know that this nutrient-packed foliage is keeping us alive, serving up a ritual meal of greens on New Year’s Day, and assigning a superstitious value to it. As the story goes, one’s prospects of prosperity in the coming year directly correlate to the volume of greens ingested on January 1. Because they look like money. Makes perfect sense, right?

If the idea of greens isn’t your concept of delicacy (or even sustenance), I have some sympathy. My self of New Years’ Past was more than willing to forgo all that income to avoid eating something so slimy and bitter. There wasn’t enough cornbread in the world to choke it down.

Times have changed, though. Greens are enjoying a renaissance. Kale (which, in my childhood, was only used to decorate the buffet at Shoney’s) is practically the shibboleth of the hipster lifestyle. All sorts of preparations are cropping up on menus. Celebrated chefs from the South, like Vivian Howard, have elevated the profile even of collards, the lowliest of the family.

Gone are the days when “greens” meant a big pot of pungency percolating on the range. Now they appear in recipes braised, creamed, folded into gratins, shaved into salads and slaws, even slowly baked into chips. Everyone is tinkering with cooking methods, experimenting with seasonings, and bringing every conceivable cultivar to the table in all its glory.

Of course, collards must still be done the old way. Even if you want to do something creative with them, you first have to give them the two-hour spa treatment on the stove. Before you even begin, the whole sink must be cordoned off for a ritual washing that would make pharisees proud. That bunch of verdure, so princely in its stubbornness, then demands that you manufacture the liquid you cook it in—two quarts of water, a split ham hock or other piece of seasoning meat, salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Then the stems must be removed and put in the pot first, lest they be found tough and stringy at serving time. Hardcore traditionalists even suggest macerating the finished product in the pot with a purpose-built tool.

Unlike with most other vegetables, this labor of love results in the best possible outcome. Boiled brussels sprouts, turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, etc., are reduced to flavorless slop, but collards are nearly inedible in any other preparation. Their bitterness becomes a defining note in a resolving chord of salty, spicy, broth as rich as any soup. Once all the greens are gone, that potlikker is a beverage without parallel. I personally ladle it off into a glass for more mannerly slurping.

I’ll fight anyone (as politely as possible—how about a cook-off?) who still refuses to try a helping of greens based solely on childhood overcooking trauma. Still not convinced? Let’s go a step further and say that greens are at the epicenter of the future of healthy lives on a healthy planet.

When you eat greens, meat is only a seasoning or condiment, not the main attraction. A little goes a long way, stretching the useful life of a slaughtered pig well beyond the festal tenderloins and chops, and even the slow-smoked shoulder of barbecue-stand fame. Almost everyone agrees that eating less meat would be better for us all. The reason greens tend to be associated with low-income cuisine is that they made it possible to feed a whole family with a tiny piece of preserved meat, usually the scraps from what a butcher might’ve sold to furnish a wealthier family’s fine dining. The only reason we all expect meat at every meal today is the artificial cheapness of modern meat thanks to industrial farming and government subsidy of feed grain. Greens can be your gateway to a less-but-better meat regimen.

Buying greens is a great first step to supporting local agriculture. They’re often among the least expensive options at your local produce stand or farmer’s market. They’re a win for local farmers, too, growing fast, requiring minimal maintenance, and coming to market in a season when income streams from more popular produce options dry up. If you want to eat healthier while breaking down the monoculture monopoly of American farming, diversify your palate with some of these unsung veggies.

Perhaps best of all, though, cooking greens requires patience and intentionality. Collards should be the poster-ingredient of the slow food movement. You can’t have them if you aren’t willing to work for them. It takes advance planning. But what thoughts and meditations could you have when you put down your screen, take up your knife, and attend to a mess of collards?

Slowing down to cook helps us slow down to savor, slow down to share. Greens remind us how fragile life is, how much we depend on unseen processes to keep these bodies going. Someone somewhere is always taking this kind of time to grow and prepare every meal we eat, whether at home, in a restaurant, or at a cannery. When we partake of this good work ourselves, we can only rejoice at the goodness and provision of the Lord of the Harvest and marvel at the abundance of His garden.

Photo: Still Life with Collards and Sink, Chattanooga, Tenn., January 2018. Collards courtesy of the only vendor open on a frigid New Year’s Day at the NC State Farmers Market in Raleigh.

 

Walker Percy Weekend

You see the pig first.

Smoked and shimmering in all his suckling glory, he leads the way into a church hall set up for a meal considerably more lavish than your average dinner on the grounds. The crowd eases in a few at a time, shaking out their umbrellas, glazed with the sticky cool of a summer night’s rain. As they descend on the spread, the gears of conversation engage (with a little help from the wine) and old friends and former strangers talk long into the night, humidity and horseflies not withstanding.

All this Louisiana cuisine and conviviality could be the scene of a birthday party, anniversary, or graduation. The guest of honor is not here, though, having died 26 years hence. Even so, it was his 100th birthday, and so we came. From all over, we came to St. Francisville for the third Walker Percy Weekend.

Must this not be what every author dreams of? Posthumous recognition such that when people who have been touched and challenged by your work come together to remember you, it is not in self-important tut-tutting about your cultural impact but simply to make merry and rejoice that you wrote.

Between the freely flowing bourbon and the mountain of mudbugs on Saturday night, it just might have been possible to forget this was a literary event (“conference” isn’t quite a fit), but the superb panels by friends and family and Percy scholars from universities around the country, with lots of questions and comments from the crowd, brought out the best for readers. Everything from the collapse of the political center to the depths of despair in Dostoevsky to Springsteen (yes, that one) was on offer. Even the depth of discussion over cocktails and crawfish was a sight to behold.

The civic spirit of this little town in West Feliciana was really on display, too. If the banners lining Ferdinand Street proclaiming “We Love It Here!” were so much boosterism, nothing in the joyful hospitality of the locals I met gave it away. They put on the dog for us all, opening homes, churches, shops and public spaces in one long roving feast for body, mind, and spirit.

I think Walker would be proud of his fellow Louisianians, and probably more than a little annoyed at being the center of attention. By God’s extravagant grace, in this little corner of “the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world” all was well for a few days. The troubles Percy saw so clearly tearing us apart could melt away, all suffused in the glow of summer sweat and steam from a trailer vat of boiling crustaceans.