I make a visit to the grave about twice a year. As expected, the cemetery is a quiet, green place that sits below open skies and shaded lanes lined with old trees. Officially, two grandparents and my mother now rest there. Unofficially, my sister and father also have some of their ashes folded in to the earth, where I plant and replant perennials during the spring and autumn.
My siblings and I have been coming to this gravestone intermittently since we were very young, at first to “visit” the original resident, a grandfather we never knew. Before my aunt arranged to have the stone raised up, it had been the shortest marble monument in the row, just a little higher than the height of a chair. My grandmother used to sit right on it and enjoy a sunny day, eating the snack she had packed and perhaps contemplating her lost husband. We would bring bread to feed the ducks and swans in the nearby pond and peer through leaded glass and wrought iron doors to look inside the fancy mausoleums on the hill.
Before leaving, all would gather to pose in front of the monument and take a group photograph. I had no idea there was anything unusual about that until a friend once mentioned how weird it was to see pictures of the family gathered and smiling around a gravestone. It has just always been that way and it feels natural to us. Of course, one by one there have been new additions to the plot, with new emotions and connections attached to them. But we still go back and we still take photos. The children who once fed the ducks there have grown, later to visit with their own children, who ran around playing hide and seek among the stones. Now they are grown too.
I am fairly dutiful about maintaining the grave, even if it is only once or twice a year. A trip will often evolve on the spur of the moment. I know that our loved ones are not “There” per se, and that I can visit them in my heart at any time. But I feel it is a respectful thing to do, and I feel better when I do it, so the ritual continues.
To find exactly where the plot is involves a loose sense of direction. Never having paid attention to curb markers and constantly forgetting the name on the stone at the end of the row closest to the road to use as a guide, instead I just keep bearing left – over a bridge, past a lake, left at the first intersection, left again at the second. When the tilt of the gravestones on the right slowly appears to line up parallel with the car, that is when my inner radar tells me it is time to stop and park, and start walking towards the middle. When I get to a center area in full sunlight, the search begins for the shortest stone, the one with sedum bracketing it on either side.
For the past couple of years I have been letting this pilgrimage coincide with a visit to my friend K, who lives not that far from the cemetery. She joins me for the short visit, being rather supportive and somewhat enthusiastic about it, which I appreciate and also hold special, her sharing in this ritual that is deeply personal to me. Armed with a small garden shovel, fresh perennials, work gloves, a jug for water and some mulch, we tidy up the dried stalks from the previous season and refresh the small plot. Then we leave a new stone or pebble on top of the marble marker, indicating we had been there. I have approached this ritual with feelings of emotion and feelings of detachment both, depending on the day.
Not everything I have planted has done that well, but the dusty rose-colored sedum seems to have found a home there. It works well because it does not make a mess or require tending by the maintenance crew, and yet is hardy enough to withstand the climate and location, while lending simple color and life where life no longer is.
When K and I arrived to freshen up the plot last year, we discovered that the sedum had really taken off. There was so much of it that we dug some up and took it home for our own gardens, where it has flourished. We returned again this year with some late summer mums and asters, removing a little more sedum to create space for them. We were going to take the extra growth home again, when we looked around and K remarked that there were graves there that clearly nobody ever came to visit or tend anymore. Some of the dates on them went back far enough to be someone’s great-grandparents, with nothing but dry patches of sparse grass in front of them. It was sort of sad. Gee, maybe they would like a little sedum? So we planted a bit of the extra flowers by a couple of headstones that had been long unrecalled, acknowledging their names as we did so.
And so The Sedum Project has been born. When we go back next year, like Johnny Appleseed, we will again divide and share the flowers among the forgotten.