Why are they called blankets?

A "contemporary" grave blanket.

It’s January 2.  Mr. NYer and I welcomed 2010 with friends and family.  And it was time for me to start the goodbyes.  It’s been a good holiday season and fun to finish with two good parties.  

My parents never really celebrated New Year’s Eve.  First of all, they weren’t the party-going kind.  Mainly, though, it was because my maternal grandmother died on December 31 — in 1940 — and my mother could never set that loss aside to celebrate the arrival of a new year.  

I think of this because the dead are so much with us during the holidays, not only in their absence, but also in the traditions we carry on.  How we live with the dead, and commemorate their lives, is the subject of this post. 

I’ve got cemeteries on my mind, partly because the holiday season unofficially begins with the discussion about the grave blanket.  A grave blanket, for those who don’t know, is an oblong affair, constructed from evergreen boughs and decorated with pinecones, bows, plastic pointsettias, and, depending on taste, more garish holiday kitsch.  It is laid atop the grave of a loved one during the holiday season.  That much we can agree on.  Why we do it, what it means, and, especially, why it’s called a blanket, are not so clear.

There’s actually no disagreement among my sisters and I about getting the grave blanket for our parents’ plot.  Every year someone raises the issue, one of use volunteers to acquire the greenery, and we all split the cost.  We would not dream of not buying the blanket.  We do it because our mother did.  She and her siblings laid one on their  parents’ grave every year (but was one secured for my paternal grandparents?  I don’t know).  When our father died, mom always had a blanket put on his grave.

One of my sisters objects, vehemently, to the term “grave blanket.”   She feels it’s creepy and manipulative.  I don’t disagree, but I can’t be bothered to make the effort, as she does, to edit the phrase and call it a “cover” instead.  We all  agree that we prefer natural ones sans plastic accoutrements.  And we shudder at the folks who decorate their loved ones’ graves with Santa and snowmen at Christmas and with Jack o’ lanterns and witches at Halloween. 

We do not really discuss the function of the blanket/cover.  We know it  does not keep our parents warm.  We know that they (our parents) aren’t keeping tabs on whether we dutifully lay one down every year.  We  don’t necessarily even visit the cemetery during the holiday season to view the decorated grave (one can arrange with a local florist to handle it all via telephone).   

Yet we do it, and  we try to do it with some dignity.  We have done it the wrong way.  About a year after our mother died, I found myself with my sisters in a line of cars at the same cemetery awaiting our uncle’s funeral.  Someone raised the topic of the yet-to-be-purchased grave blanket when another noticed the adjacent florist.  Flash of inspiration!  Two of us dashed over,  bought the evergreen, borrowed a hammer to secure the spikes, and hustled back to the car, hoping no one was paying attention to what we were loading into the back.  After Uncle Mimi’s burial service was over, we stopped at Mom & Dad’s plot, near the statue of St. Joseph.  Dressed in suits and wearing heels, we did our best to secure  the cover, hammering in the spikes so it wouldn’t blow away.  We stood up, dusted off our hands, and I said, “Mom would  be proud,” recalling her own fierce efficiency.

“Are you kidding?” my sister replied.  “She’d be horrified.” 

She was right, of course.  We returned the hammer to the florist, and headed to the funeral lunch, where we didn’t brag about our deed.  My moment of feeling resourceful had passed, replaced by a certain cheesiness about killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.  It was spontaneous and efficient, but those aren’t the values the grave blanket is supposed to elicit.   

At some point after the season, the cemetery folks will sweep through and remove all the blankets, wreaths and other mementos of Christmas.  Or at least, we think they should.  But I have  visited the grave in early spring to find the blanket  a dried up brown mess, and have had to remove it myself.  This, of course, makes me feel guilty that I have not tended the plot more carefully. 

It doesn’t help, either, that a dear friend’s mother regularly visits her husband’s grave at the same cemetery.  Then, when she’s done, she stops by to visit all the other folks she knows.  She has graciously included my parents on the circuit, and I regularly hear reports that the grass isn’t maintained as well as it should be.  Should I be marching into the cemetery office to complain?  Does my failure to do so signal neglect?  

I admit to mixed feelings about the cemetery.  I like cemeteries, and have included visits to burial grounds on more than one vacation, appreciating the landscaping, the artistry of tombstones and, occasionally, the quirkiness of epitaphs.  I want to be buried when I die.  I think we should, in fact, go back to the earth, and as quickly and efficiently as possible.  So it’s not cemeteries per se that bother me.  It’s the totemic meaning we place on the grave itself.

I know there are folks who really feel closer to their loved ones when they visit.  I imagine this is mostly true for spouses or parents who have  lost children.  I know there are people who visit, and chat with those who are buried; some people leave small  gifts or messages behind.  (Then there are those who take out ads in the local newspaper to wish a “Happy Birthday to Johnny in heaven,” a practice I find disturbing on so many levels.  But I digress.) 

For me, visiting my parents’ grave reminds me of nothing so much as their funerals. I’m enough of a Christian to feel that acting as if they are there is more than a little bit pagan. For me, it’s more mundane activities, like painting a room,  or cooking a holiday meal, that bring my parents vividly to life in memory.  

For most graves, unless the person buried is famous, there’s a relatively narrow window of meaningful visitation that lasts twenty years or so.  A widowed spouse visits devotedly as long as he or she can.  Children visit dutifully.  I know where my grandparents are buried, but I have not seen their graves since my parents passed.  The only reasons for visits after I was married was to chauffeur my parents.  

The neglect didn’t begin with my generation.  About thirty years ago, interested in digging up some family history, I sat with my father and examined the cemetery deeds in his possession.  Holding one for Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn I asked, “Who is buried here?”

“My grandfather,” he  answered.  “But it’s an unmarked grave.” 

My father’s widowed grandfather died, I knew, in 1912, when my father was two years old.  “What about your grandmother?” I asked.  “Isn’t she buried there too?”

My father didn’t think so, but had no idea when she had died or where she was buried.  He only remembered that he had visited this narrow, unmarked grave in the old section of Holy Cross once or twice as a child with his mother.  With a mystery in hand, we drove to Brooklyn on a summer afternoon to investigate.  We walked into the cemetery office, handed the deed to the woman behind the counter, and asked for information on the grave.

First we learned that, should we want to bury someone,  we would have to cough up a couple of hundred dollars in past due upkeep.  This surprised us — not that the grave pre-dated perpetual care, but that anyone would actually think of using the plot.  Next she thumbed through a card file and announced, “There are eleven people in this grave; it will take time to look them up. ”   She told us that she would mail the list, but we left expecting that an overdue balance would trump her  helpfulness. 

The list did come, and revealed that not only was his grandmother buried there, but so were nine of my father’s aunts, uncles and cousins, none of whom he had ever known and all of whose ages at death revealed the terrible reality of living in the nineteenth century.   

Despite knowing who was in the grave, my father never visited again.  Why would he?  The only people  who care about graves are the ones who shared a space of time on earth with the departed.  Like I said, it’s a narrow window.

My departure to Alabama means I am shortening the window for my parents’ grave.  My sisters will visit, and I imagine I will get there once in a while.  When we are gone, whether to other states, or to another final state, that grave will join the ranks of unvisited graves sighted from the roadside and forming a mere part of the overall cemetery landscape.

It’s better that way.  Imagine if we mourned for generations.  We’d never move, and never move on.