We would look out the backseat car window to the grassy graveyard where Mom was pointing.
"The trip to Rochester used to take so long that when the weather was nice, we would rest here and have a picnic.”
My mother said this every time my father drove us past the roadside cemetery on the two-hour drive to see our Rochester, Minnesota, relatives or visit the Mayo Clinic.
As little girl, I was horrified. Eating among the gravestones seemed like a creepy custom from another country and another century.
"Mom, how could you eat on top of all those dead people?!"
“Oh, it was lovely!” she would reply. “The cemetery was halfway between Madelia and Rochester, so sometimes Aunt Daisy and Uncle Louie would meet us here. We’d put a blanket on the grass, and after sandwiches and lemonade, Uncle Louie and Papa would smoke and take a nap. Later Mama and I would go back to Rochester for a few days' visit, and Papa would return home alone.”
My mother's fond recollections didn't mean much to me then, but as I got older, I found myself drawn to cemeteries. Not to picnic, as my mother did in the 1920s, but to walk and reflect. Cemeteries are havens for birds, flowers, big trees, and human history. They touch me deeply.
For fifteen years, I lived two blocks from a 50-acre historic cemetery in Napa, California. I often walked at Tulocay, marveling at the opulent Victorian mausoleums and grave markers, some over a century old. It was a soothing place to sort out life's challenges and see my problems from a larger perspective.
Now my wife and I make our home in Minnesota and in Mexico. Our Minneapolis home is ten minutes from the posh 250-acre historic Lakewood Cemetery, where we can stroll for hours. In our home town of Madelia, my sister’s farm abuts the cemetery where our relatives are buried. When Becky and I stay at my sister’s, we often walk amidst the markers, recognizing names from our childhood.
Our Isla Mujeres, Mexico, condo is two blocks from the little local cemetery. White plaster grave-houses bear names, dates, and pictures of the deceased. There's even the tombstone of a famous pirate bearing the sobering inscription, "As you are now, so I once was. As I am now, so you will be."
At the beginning of November, Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. People wash and sweep their family’s grave-houses, decorate them with flowers, bring their loved ones’ favorite dishes, and eat the meal by the graves, as my mother's family did so long ago.
Rather than seeming quaint or creepy, this custom now feels admirable. Breaking bread among the graves is a way to normalize death, to nourish the connections between the living and our loved ones who have passed before us, and to enjoy the bounty of life in a beautiful and sacred setting.
Now that spring is almost upon us, Becky and I are thinking of having a little picnic with my mother. We'll bring her favorites: egg salad sandwiches, lemonade, and brownies. Skoal, Mom!
For a fascinating cultural history of cemeteries, from the first landscaped garden cemetery (Pere Lachaise in Paris), to the burial place of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau (Sleepy Hollow in Massachusetts), to today’s natural conservation cemeteries in Britain and America, click here.