No one knows how to react when your week is mostly composed of cemetery visits. It sounds so gothic Italian-American. I think if it’s not actually part of your culture, it’s easy to just imagine long black veils fluttering elegantly in the wind, tear stained cheeks, black dresses, black gloves, somberly staring out of windows. It does not sound like MamaFran in a warm up suit driving her Honda Fit that is strewn with greens, ornaments, scissors, bottled water and small straw angels. Admittedly yes, I spend time staring out of my window or at my screen when we are annoying each other too much.
I like the pretend image, it gives us both more glamour than either of us deserve. But it takes out the meat of what this ritual really is. Sometimes, it’s sad. Sometimes, it feels like you’ll blink and your bones will be under the earth in the same place as the rest of your family. Sometimes, all you can think of is how much you miss them and how hard it is to be without them. But most of the time? I don’t feel anything much at all. If you go to the cemetery 2-4 times a year and you’ve had dead people all your life and you’re 41 now, that’s at least 120 trips to the cemetery. I’m all for the gothic aesthetic, but it’s hard to get it up for that much misery. And it’s not about that, really.
It’s about tradition. Actual tradition. Do you know where your dead people are? Not this grand ideal of thousands of years of tradition running through your veins and your beautiful little altar at home to this theory. That’s important too. I’ve been working on clicker training MamaFran to come to my ancestor altar now while she’s alive with the promise of cannolis when she’s dead. I said I can’t go to her all the time, sometimes she has to come to me and she can’t be lazy about it. But, I’m talking if someone blindfolded you and shoved you in a car, held a gun to your head and shouted, WHERE’S AUNT GRACE/ NANNY/ POP-POP/MOM/ DAD/ YOUR CHILDHOOD BESTIE, SAM? Like, would you be a dead person walking?
Yes, your actual dead people will be full of complications because they aren’t mythic, they are people you used to fight with. They are people you may have had difficult relationships with. They may have had questionable politics and other really irritating things about them. If you are like me and you don’t insist on shining up your dead so they were just beacons of virtue, you will remember these things in great detail. You are not obligated to visit your dead that caused you trauma. You’re not even obligated to anything, really. But if you want a chance at actual ancestor relationships, this is where the sausage is made. You can ignore it. You don’t have to pick up every shiny thing ever. It might not be for you. If you can’t stand any of your dead people, it happens.
So if I’m in this hostage car ride, I’m not going to fare much better. Because like 110+ of those trips have been under my mother’s auspice. I’m just her apprentice. So there’s been a lot of zoning out through the years and thinking about more pleasant things on the drive – like crushes I had, crazy parties I had just been to or hostessed, who I was fighting with, books I was reading, things I would do after. Whatever. So this year, I got smart. I dropped Google map pins everywhere someone is and added my mother’s archaic notes. Like, “fourth grave in by this tree” and “look for Mr. Gaston’s grave”. It will at least bring me really close to the sites.
During this time, I’ve started an ongoing argument with her because that’s what you do when you’re trapped in a car together for at least five hours in a week to visit dead people. I hate the cemetery my father is buried in. It’s hard to take apart of that’s the trauma of being eighteen when my dad died or if it’s because I feel like the cemetery itself is a total drag. Because it is.
It’s not near anything that great, it’s in the wilds of New Jersey. Like ten minutes out you get alpaca, goats and horses but before that? Just at least an hour of the Turnpike. The headstones are flat and it’s a wind tunnel when it’s windy. The headstones being flat means you can only leave things v. short term there because as soon as they mow, it’s getting wrecked. I think the headstones being flat is a sign of laziness on the part of the groundskeepers. Several weeks ago, I tentatively broached digging up Daddy and moving him to St. Charles and putting her eventually there, too.
Let me tell you about St. Charles. St. Charles is a dope cemetery. Hoodoo talks about a cemetery being live because the spirits are live and that’s great when you’re doing that kind of work. When you are visiting your dead people because it’s what your mother would want you to do (and said dead people) and you don’t have intranquil spirit plans, live to me means that people are actually participating in ancestral rites. You probably have really elegant ideas of what that looks like. Indulge for a moment, go crazy. Get all the doves, lilies and weeping angels that you need.
What it actually looks like is people planting trees all over the damn place, Pop-Pop over there has a boss train set up, someone baked cookies in to wreaths over here because I guess Aunt Hilda was really into that, it looks like mini-actual-Christmas at the dead kid’s grave a row over and has for 41 years. Maybe you almost get locked in the cemetery one Christmas Eve because there was a lot of traffic and your mother is really determined but not nearly as determined as the dude who was stringing lights on an actual six foot tree at dusk as we speed out as the cemetery dude is closing the gates. I don’t know what the other dude’s plan was. Hopping the fence? Friends with CD? Don’t know. But these are a bunch of really, really motivated descendents. And I’m 110% into it. There’s a small private airport right outside the cemetery which is fun for post-life entertainment, other people are going crazy building marble dead people houses (which we were talked out of if you recall by a marble dead person house sales girl), but it looks really nice l and St. Charles owns like a ton of land so they’re going to be stuck taking care of us for roughly forever.
She was at first open to this, but as we moved onto dad’s cemetery, MamaFran went into realtor mode. Have you noticed how peaceful it is here? Look how many people brought their dogs! Have I mentioned it’s free? It’s also not that long of a car ride, really. There are benches! And, um, a wall full of urns for cremated people. That’s . . .cool. HAVE I MENTIONED IT’S FREE?
Fine. Fine! You want to spend eternity together in a lazy person’s lawn, who am I to deny you? I’m getting buried at St. Charles which will be actual fun but you want to be out here in the sticks, knock yourself out. (MamaFran looked surprised and impressed that I had decided where I was going to be buried). She also started showcasing some of the spousal stones. A lot of time was spent scrutinizing a new spouse stone which had the spouse on her own stone. I finally said, “So do you, like, want your own?” She started laughing. “Do I want my own!” I’m taking that to mean yes and it better not be crooked.
But let’s discuss what this rite actually looks like. Not the idealized version, but the actual version. You will just have to take my word for it because I suggested doing a video with MamaFran discussing it and she bellowed, IT’S JUST COMMON SENSE, DEBBIE. Which I took to mean that she’s uninterested in your education, even though I pointed out if you haven’t had a parent dragging you to dead people hangouts all your life, you may be a bit spotty on protocol.
The traditional pose at a grave is sort of like a significantly less elegant version of rag doll pose in yoga. Because your first order of business, after scoping out the neighborhood and who has what where is to get your dead people’s spot in order. You may need to plant something, you may need to use ribbon to add festive ornaments to your dead people’s headstones, you may need to practice gently kicking over your dead husband’s log/greenery arrangement to make sure it’s heavy enough while holding curling ribbon so you can somehow tie it to a flat stone. Previously you had stakes for this but you know, a lot of dead people places. If you are an apprentice, your main job is to troubleshoot her problems, tie ribbons, weed, crouch down to get at things, rearrange the rock garden, water the plants and admire your mother’s work. Basically, the same job you’ve had as long as you can remember. This sounds easy, but the weather is often freezing, raining or generally miserable.
Here is where media teaches a long soliloquy to your dead people. If it’s a nice day, you might have a little light chat that’s approved by your mother. If you want deep feels talk, you better be prepared to drive out there solo on your own time. Especially if she’s feeling antsy. If she’s feeling antsy, good luck getting more than a Hail Mary and two signs of the cross. Silently.
The actual dead people site work takes maybe ten minutes. But isn’t that most rituals? If you do just the actual work part? For me, ritual prep is so much more to do with it than the actual ritual work. Here it would be the car rides of indeterminable length and enduring them, discussing why what she’s bringing is the tops, Sicilian pizza by St. Charles at my dad’s favorite place and going to the Italian market two doors down where my mother can contemplate never having to cook ever again and I can buy inexpensive prosciutto and lemon ricotta (another pro in my estimation for St. Charles – incentive to go). By my dad’s, we examined a greenhouse full of poinsettas including hot pink that neither of us could buy due to pets but enjoyed taking in. Sometimes we talk about memories in the car. Sometimes we sing along to the radio. Sometimes we gossip. Sometimes we ignore each other. Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves.
The format is simple – say a prayer of some kind, leave an offering of some kind, take care of the land that your dead’s bones are nourishing, say another prayer, do something life affirming. Sometimes, simple is where everything happens in between the threads.
She wistfully said maybe we should bake fig cookies while we are at St. Charles. My heart is soft in that moment so I say yes we should. I will come to find that this is a trap. In our next adventure, we will discuss why you should just go to the Italian bakery instead.