In the suburbs outside where I grew up, there is cemetery that acts as the final resting place for the black middle and upper class. Surrounded by expensive homes and a few acres of corn, it is an odd sight to come upon.
Every Memorial Day, this home for the dead has a homecoming of sorts. Hundreds of people come to place flowers at the sight of their loved ones. This year, I also took part in this ritual.
Driving to the cemetery, you would hardly know a city was close behind you. Take a turn, pass a few apartment buildings, and drive for ten minutes. Gradually, houses get bigger. The land surrounding each expands. One car garages become two. Carports become driveways become private roads. Pools sink into the ground. Tennis courts rise. You know this is not where you were before. Foliage covers the road, obscuring the brilliant sunlight that would otherwise pour through. It feels as if you are privy to some secret hideaway, some better place to live. How ironic that it takes death for these black folks to, “move on up.”
Turning into the cemetery, you are immediately greeted by a volunteer in a yellow shirt. You roll down your window and they ask, “Do you know where you are going?” I knew. I remembered the way: down the hill, past the large floral sign, around the curve with famous black folks graves marked in bronze & marble, up the hill with the mausoleum to the left, go about a quarter of the ways down the hill on the right. I remembered the way we took, carrying Ella’s body in tow. I remembered the line of parked cars, the men in dress shirts who I’d never met before, walking across the grass, sitting in the folding chairs on the earth, never actually finding stillness.
As I drove towards where she lay, the sheer enormity of people was daunting. Cars lined the sides, down and up and down the hills. I made my way, but was stopped not twenty feet from where I needed to park. There was a jam. Over a dozen cars, including mine, needed to back out. I became frustrated, annoyed, and contemplating leaving. I was already having a bad day (I’ll talk about that in another post). But I didn’t leave, not yet. I waited for a moment, watching the people walk by. A woman carried a small child passed out on her arm. Life & death are so preciously close. A man walked on crutches, his right leg gone. Death ever present; who knows when the end will come.
I turned around and parked my car down yet another hill. I walked towards the plots. I found my family. Aunties & Uncles in the same grave; Ella just below them. I brushed off their markers. I didn’t know what to say. In situations like these, I always feel awkward. Am I suppose to cry? Am I suppose to say something? What am I suppose to do? I half expected an altercation to ensue; I had anticipated other family members being there. But it was just me, alone, with the crowds of people seeing their loved ones. I told Ella I missed her. I saw the small damage done to Aunties & Uncles marker. I went over to one of the volunteers. He put in a work order for the fix, which apparently was common. I left.
When I got back to my car, I pulled out the rose my ex gave me when Ella died. I had carried it in my car since that day, two years ago. I put it in some tall grass and took a picture for posterity (they only allow fresh flowers on the graves). I was okay.
I don’t know if I’ll go back next year. But I don’t think it really matters if I do. Family is in your heart, not in a hole in the ground.
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