Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
June is here, which means that it's about time for our annual Cemetery Homecoming, a potluck get-together where the relatives of those buried at the old family graveyard gather for food, prayer and socializing.
Friends from other parts of the country are often shocked when they hear me say that I'm going to a party at a cemetery. Likewise, I'm always surprised to hear that not everyone goes to events like these. The idea of an annual gathering of this sort is so deeply entrenched in the culture around here that our cemetery has large, permanent barbecue pits, an outhouse, and an expansive pavilion with picnic tables to seat 100, all in support of the annual homecoming.
The idea of graveyard gatherings evidently has roots going back to before the Civil War, when they were called Decoration Days, since folks would go out and decorate the graves of deceased loved ones. In fact, this is likely where our modern Memorial Day celebrations come from. According to Wikipedia:
Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountains. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and others. There often is a religious service and a "dinner on the ground," the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the "memorial day" idea.
You would think that such an event would be morbid, or at least depressing. When I describe them, especially when I mention that my parents and I usually swing by our own plots after visiting the graves of relatives, folks often react like I said I attended a meeting of a crazed death-cult. But these cemetery homecomings have a surprisingly peaceful and happy tone to them. Our cemetery was started by a small handful of farming families in the 1850s, and almost everyone who comes to the modern events is a descendant of one of them. Many of the attendees are related in some way, so when you encounter someone with a name you recognize from your own family tree, it's fun to play the name game to see how you're related to one another.
I think one of the biggest benefits of these events, though, is the way they give you a sense of comfort about the cycle of life. There's a palpable sense of connectedness among both the living and the dead: Those of us still living are connected to one another, and we are connected to those who have passed, just as those who have passed were connected to one another, and to those who died before them. We recognize names scrawled on nametags, just as we recognize names carefully chiseled onto tombstones, and there's a feeling that we're surrounded by loved ones, both those alive on earth and those alive on the other side. There's a comfort in imagining future generations coming to celebrate in this same place, to think of our own graves as places of gathering and life. Though my Protestant relatives wouldn't describe it this way, it feels like a celebration of the Communion of Saints. It's a reminder that just as we are all reunited for a short day here on earth, we hope to be reunited with each other, and with all those who have gone before us, for eternity.
I'd be interested to know: Are there Cemetery Homecomings like this in other parts of the country, or is graveyard socializing just a Texas thing?