CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Who Said Death Was Supposed To Be A Picnic?


By Jack Cawthon, 2002

We called it Decoration Day and before the government began messing around with our holidays the official date was May 30. However, even before the Monday holiday it is today most people observed the Sunday closest to May 30.

The purpose in the beginning was to honor war dead, but in my family it was more like a reunion day and one that I as a kid didn't care for very much.

For one thing, I had to dress up and then we had to go mill around the graveyard. My mom's relatives were buried near town. There we not only decorated the graves but the grownups met people they hadn't seen in a while.

I think we may have honored the living more than the dead but they were the silent majority without much of a voice in the matter.

I had a rich uncle, well rich what time he wasn't broke, who delighted in mingling and doing a little bragging, which I suppose was all right for a poor country boy who had left home at an early age for the big city and had made a fortune off and on.

Maybe I was a bit jealous in later years as no one paid much attention to me. Hey, I was a big-time editor on the government payroll. I was poor myself until I got on the public dole.

But the cemetery out in the country was where my dad's people were buried, and I felt more at ease with the folks who gathered there. In earlier years there would be a preacher who would say a few words-or some who said way too many words-as we all sat under a shady grove of trees.

There would be singing and we may have sometimes taken a picnic spread. Anyway, this was a good country crowd who had seen its share of grief and setbacks in trying to punch a living out of poor hill land. I knew more sadness there as my brother was brought back to that hillside in 1943 a casualty of the Second Big One.

At 22 years of age he had become a First Lieutenant with silver pilot wings, accomplishing more in that short time than I have going into a senior discount mode.

My dad had placed a flagpole at the gravesite and each year he raised the flag proudly that had covered my brother's casket. There was something majestic about that big flag flying over an isolated country cemetery, still during war time.

I think that those people of the soil were proud to honor one of their own who had proven that hill isolation could not stifle ambition if one had enough grit and determination.

Maybe that was where the real meaning of Decoration Day was ingrained in me. It wasn't the artificial flowers, and Lord knows we had too many of those.

My mother and my aunt would begin weeks before the observance using bolts of crepe paper to create all sorts of colorful flora which I suppose today would bring a fortune as an authentic hill craft.

The graves would be completely covered with bright colors, some might say garish, at least until the first rain when the dye from the paper ran profusely. Is there still such paper today? Now, all our decorations come from China. I hate buying them, but sad to say, through guilt I do because if something tangible isn't placed on the graves folks will think no one cares. Is this really the way to honor the dead?

I may have developed a complex as a kid when I was handed a bunch of "flowers" and told to stick them on the grave. When I punched the wire stem down and it met with resistance I was sure I was punching into the dead person under the ground. I may have been a strange little kid, which later became a stranger adult.

Years ago there was no such thing as "perpetual care," unless you considered the care that lingered in the heart. We each took turns at mowing the graveyard, taking care of the family plot and as many of the neighbors as time and effort would allow. Before the day of observance everything looked neat and clean. It might not stay that way all year long but we at least had put a part of ourselves into the effort.

Today, we have paid caretakers who mow all summer long. I suppose that appeases most people in that their dead are in neat graves, but for myself I like the more natural look.

And I have that on my land in Preston County. I am the caretaker of a small cemetery that was once the community burying ground. It goes back to the pioneers of that rugged region of the Cheat country.

It was once the site honored each year by a large community gathering but in later years attention was diverted to a newer much more elaborate one out the road, and now it's just me and those long forgotten residents who gather for a few memories from time to time, not always on May 30 but throughout the year.

It's a beautiful spot on top of a mountain where one can see for miles. I've made sort of a park out it by cutting the brush and mowing the grass a few times a year. I'm not a neat caretaker like the pro, but so far the folks up there haven't complained.

They make good neighbors, never any loud parties or jangling of chains or even apparitions that I've been able to definitely prove to skeptics. The gentle breeze blows constantly in the summer and the winter brings its icy chill, but, hey, who said death would be all fun?

Well, maybe if we live right, but I took journalism and I need all the help I can get. I think most of those folks up there are pulling for me, and if I do than a few favors like mowing and placing a small flag and maybe a token of flowers maybe they'll put in a good word or two for me.

They aren't my relatives, but I'm think strongly of joining them, although not until the time comes.

At least we won't add much to the coffers of our little yellow brothers across the sea in their craft shops. I'm more inclined to think they may attempt to bury all of us someday if the opportunity arises and I doubt if they will give much thought to keeping up the cemeteries.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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