“You are not truly dead until there is no one left who remembers you.”
Every Memorial Day eve, my son’s adopted Portuguese grandmother would say, “We’re going to the graves, would Sam like to come?” As someone raised to stay away from cemeteries unless there were a funeral, I found this odd. “Are you going to lay a wreath for the veterans?” I would ask, thinking this would not be a thrilling experience for a six year old. “No, we’re going to visit Momma and Poppa, and have a big picnic—he’ll love it.” And he did. Sitting around the tombstones eating Anna’s family recipes, he learned the stories of people he had never met, but whose traces were evident in those still living. Some of the stones had photographs embedded in them, and he could see the resemblance between a man who had passed away over a century before, and his teenaged great grandson.
This was my introduction to the decidedly foreign concept of celebrating at the graves of ancestors; something the Romans knew about when they took wine, food, and offerings to the graves—and stayed to party with their gens, or forebears. If you didn’t have relatives to bury your dead, you joined a funerary guild to help honor them. When the first Jews entered Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1830’s, they formed burial societies twenty years before they established a synagogue.
As a personal historian, whose business it is to save lives through capturing them on video, I have learned to love cemeteries both for what they can teach me about the customs of different times and
cultures, and for the way I resonate (or don’t) with those customs. I have been in the necropolis below St. Peter’s in Rome, where you can walk upright among graves painted with brightly colored pictures of families feasting. I have sat in the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw and seen the once well-tended stones knocked over and neglected because those who would tend them are long gone, migrated to escape persecution, or murdered in the Holocaust; and I have strolled for hours in the garden cemeteries of Mt. Auburn in Massachusetts, and Hollywood, in Richmond, Virginia, looking at the unmarked graves of Union and Confederate dead beneath monuments made of cannons.
Looking for my own ancestors and trying to find places I cannot visit, but want to see, I have relied upon the dedication of strangers who want to make it possible for those seeking connection with their forebears to have it. This free service is made possible by Find-a-Grave.com. Best known for their graves of the rich and famous, Find-A-Grave’s more valuable service is given by volunteers in every state and small town who go to cemeteries, photograph the gravestones and monuments, and post them on the website. You can be the beneficiary of this service, and you can do the same for someone else.
This Memorial Day, think of those who went before not only you, but someone far away whose relative may be buried in the cemetery in your town. Maybe you can go there, snap some photos, and post them. You may be keeping some ancestor alive!