Written by Rebecca D. Elswick. A native of southwestern Virginia, Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies among them Deep South, Drafthorse, and Still: The Journal. Her debut novel, Mama’s Shoes (2011) was published by Writer’s Digest, the result of winning a contest. She has an MFA from West Virginia Wesleyan and is a teacher-consultant for the Appalachian Writing Project at UVA Wise.
Spring is the time of naissance. Stories abound about the rituals and celebrations of spring that bind our human fates with the cycle of nature. It’s during spring that the sun teases the plants from the ground, and animals fill the barns and fields with their young. In central Appalachia, it’s during this season of birth that the long-standing ritual of grave dressing occurs, making old family cemeteries some of the most beautiful landmarks in this part of the country. They dot the mountainsides and church yards, and many Appalachians forego public cemeteries and choose to be buried in these family graveyards, as they are likely to be called.
I love these family graveyards and the rituals surrounding death that are a mix of myth, legend, and religion that hark back to the European immigrants who settled here centuries ago. Their traditions held undisputed dominion over these mountains and took root in this place where myth and legend were welcome. Even though time has changed the way of life for people in this rugged landscape, many of the old ways still endure, especially customs surrounding death.
Like the ritual of dressing the graves, funeral services in central Appalachia are still dictated by religious customs and family traditions. As old-fashioned as they may seem to some, in truth, today’s funerals bear little resemblance to those of a hundred years ago when the absence of funeral homes and churches made families responsible for the wake and burial. In those days, the women prepared the body by stretching it out on a “laying out” board, made from boards or a door laid on top of two sawhorses. A table could also be used. When rigor mortis set in, it was possible for the body to jerk upright, so the deceased was often tied down with ropes and covered with a sheet.
While women washed and dressed the body, men hand-dug the grave. Due to the rocky terrain, dynamite was often used to blast through rock, so a grave could be fashioned. The coffin was made by the local carpenter or more likely, a family member handy with tools, and the women lined it with cloth or a funeral quilt, made for this express purpose. Often, the outside of the coffin was covered with black cloth.
If the family owned a clock, it was stopped at the time of death. This was for two reasons – to record the time of death and because for the deceased, time stood still. Any mirrors in the house were covered for two reasons – when the spirit left the body, it was believed if it saw itself it would remember the world it was leaving behind and not want to go. It was also believed if a person in the death room saw himself in the mirror, he would die shortly thereafter. Often pennies, or nickels, were placed over the closed eyes of the dead. If the mouth would not close, a handkerchief was tied around the head. Lastly, the arms were crossed over the chest.
If you were of Scottish descent, the family performed “saining” (the Scots word for blessing). The oldest woman in the family waved a lighted candle over the body three times and then place three handfuls of salt in a wooden bowl. The bowl was placed on the corpse’s chest to ward off evil spirits that could try to steal the deceased’s soul.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, houses were built with death in mind. The body was always brought home to be made ready for burial, so houses were built with a funeral window or door. A funeral window had to be wide enough to slide the coffin into the part of the house where the parlor or “front room” was located. The funeral door was in addition to the front door and was placed where it would open on the mourning or bereavement parlor. The coffin was usually set between two chairs where it waited for the prepared body. The wake was held in the evening of the day the body was laid out. Family and neighbors came with the women carrying food, and the men bringing liquor, which was usually moonshine. The custom of bringing flowers and herbs into the house came from the need to mask the smell of death.
Women were supposed to cry over the dead while the men stayed in the background. At night, chosen family members would “set-up” with the body. Mountain superstition decreed the soul didn’t leave the body until twenty-four hours after death, and the body had to be watched to keep the devil from stealing the soul. Burial often took place at the end of that twenty-four hours, especially in hot weather.
To the mountain people who prepared the dead and buried the body, this did not count as a funeral. The lack of a funeral home, church building, and more importantly a preacher, made a proper funeral impossible. Families often waited until several members died before they held what they called a funeralizing. A funeralizing was essentially a memorial service. It could take place in a church, cemetery, or person’s home, and be arranged for members of one family, members of a church family, or even the community. Months or even years after a death could pass before the funeralizing.
Another reason for funeralizing was that family members often had to save money to pay the preacher or preachers who led the service. Some families sent for a preacher of a specific religious denomination, and others depended on the circuit riding preacher, who came generally once a year through the mountain communities. Most traveling preachers who came through the Appalachian Mountains were of the Methodist – Episcopal faith. These ministers were assigned a circuit by the archdiocese and crisscrossed central Appalachia during the summer, preaching sermons, performing weddings and baptisms, and funeralizing.
A typical funeralizing was an elaborate affair. Families who could afford it, sent out black-edged invitations or provided mourning or prayer cards engraved with scriptures, and if available, a photo of the deceased. A funeralizing generally had all the elements of today’s Appalachian funeral, including the reading of the obituary, singing of hymns, and the preaching by one or more ministers. It also was a time of great mourning and weeping for the deceased. The service was typically followed by a potluck dinner.
As time passed, and with the availability of funeral homes and churches, funerals replaced the custom of funeralizing. However, many modern Appalachian rituals still revolve around death, such as the practice of having reunions in the family cemetery. Appalachia is also known for open-casket funerals, burial rather than cremation, and burying the dead in areas not designated as cemeteries, such as the hillside adjacent to a house or even the backyard.
I often pass by a small lot next to the road where a mobile home has a grave in the front yard. The teddy bear tombstone claims it as a child’s burial place. Even when the yard needs mowed, the area around the tombstone is pristine with pink roses blooming on either side of the marker. Recently, a chain-link fence encircles it. As the years go by, the absence of toys in the yard and the empty front porch is like a spotlight on the child’s grave. No matter what story I imagine about this place, there are no happy endings.
My mother remembers attending a funeralizing in War, West Virginia in the 1930s. She does not remember who the funeralizing was for, but says it was held in the maternal family cemetery. Her memories of that day include singing “lined hymns.” In Scotland, this is called precenting – the song leader sings a line of the hymn, usually in a chant or a way that suggests the tune, and then the congregation sings it. She also remembers two or three different preachers, and a huge dinner after it was over. It was at this funeralizing, that she first observed how the women “dressed” the graves, a practice she continues to this day.
When the grass greens and the sun warms the earth, it’s time to make the trek to our family’s graveyard. My mother says it must be done before Memorial Day because that is a day for admiring the graves that have already been dressed. On the appointed day, I arrive early so I can wander alone through the uneven rows of old graves. The beauty of spring juxtaposed with death doesn’t escape me. I sit under a poplar tree and look out at my history.
When my mother arrives, it takes some time to spread out the paraphernalia she needs to dress the graves – bottles of soapy water, a brush, gallons of fresh water, a bottle of baby oil, various rags, and large trash bags that hold the new flowers. I discover that she has added a new tool since we last did this – a pair of grass clippers, battery operated. I ask her what I can do, but she waves me away while she, “cuts a little grass” around the grave stones. I watch for a while, amazed at how she can bend and cut so carefully and methodically when at ninety-four, she suffers from arthritis and osteoporosis. Her back is bowed from an old spine fracture. I know she suffers, but it doesn’t stop her. It merely slows her down.
While she cuts, I wander around the cemetery. I see by the manicured grass and bright flowers that others have been here to tend their branch of the family tree, but there are many graves waiting to be dressed, their vases holding weathered Christmas arrangements. It saddens me that the favored flower of silk red roses looks the worst after a winter’s exposure. I find many arrangements whose roses are now the color of dried blood tinged in gray, and I want to change them to pinks, yellows, and lilacs.
Half an hour later, my mother has stopped cutting grass, or else the battery died on her clippers. She is ready to clean the grave markers. She lets me pour the soapy water over them while she scrubs with a soft brush, taking extra care to get inside the letters of the names. I know she is watching me like I have never done this before, and I get the sense she is making sure I know what to do for the day when the side of the tombstone she shares with my father, bears not only her name, but her date of death. I realize I have accepted the job of grave dresser, even though I was never formally asked.
When the grave markers are rinsed and dried, she lets me apply the baby oil. This is her special trick to make the headstones shine. I rub it over the entire surface, taking special care to get inside the letters of the names. When she is satisfied, I step back and let her put the flowers in the vases. I have not earned the right to do this, not yet. While she works, she talks of days gone by, of relatives I barely remember, if at all. As is her way, she speaks of them in present tense, reminding me that her brother Roy, “won’t eat breakfast without gravy on the table,” and her sister Frieda, “wore my new high heels out to the coal pile and left them to get snowed on and Mommy didn’t even whip her.”
While I listen, I hand her pieces of Styrofoam and strips of florist tape that she uses to anchor the flowers in the vase. I feel like a nurse handing instruments to a surgeon. When at last she stands back, I see her eyes rest on the names of my sister and my father. It’s now when she makes a remark that has “missing you” somewhere in it, and I know it’s almost time to leave. This year I hear her whisper, “I’ll be seeing you soon.”
I help her get into her car, seeing the pain on her face as she uses a hand to pick up her leg. We don’t talk about her pain because she prefers to bear it in silence. She puts the aches and pains of old age away. It cannot come close to the grief she’s born for thirty years after losing her oldest child, and then the added pain of losing my father five years ago.
Mother drives away and I turn my face toward the breeze. Winter’s chill is still upon it. I wander through the graves until the sun is starting to slip from a sky filled with dust colored clouds. Back at the poplar tree, I sit down and look out on the cemetery. In the gloaming, the graves with their new decorations look like blooming flowers, and as darkness gathers, I sit as if I’m waiting for an answer.
At last, I rise and prepare to leave. I will return when it’s time once again to tend the graves for after all, I am the grave dresser.
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