CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Change Doesn’t Always Mean Progress

(05/29/2003)

By Jack Cawthon
Barbecuerun@aol.com

The past Saturday I found myself back on a country road leading to our family cemetery up Owens Run from Lockney. It’s maybe three miles of what once was dirt and mud, with the road in the run for much of the way, but which is now a nicely graveled road relocated where it once followed the run. Our little car with low clearance never touched bottom at any time.

If the road is a symbol of change over the years, then the cemetery itself has complemented it. Years ago we all tended the graves ourselves, mowing as much of those surrounding ours as we were able, knowing that our neighbors would do the same for us.

There were tall trees, bushes and shrubs, and natural flowers providing shade, blooms and fragrance for that quiet place. Decoration Day, as we called it, was then on May 30, but on a Sunday closest to it folks from all around would gather at that hillside burial ground for singing and a preacher who often conducted a revival meeting instead of a benediction. As a kid, whatever he did always seemed too long as I yearned to be playing with the other kids.

All that has changed. Now the cemetery is barren of all but grass and a few pineys, which I have to be careful to call by that hill name instead of the correct peonies, as a cousin once corrected my “educated” ways when I slipped. All the trees and shrubs have been cut which I suppose makes mowing easier. But now it resembles a so-called “memorial garden” with its perpetual care. The upkeep is now regular-and paid-and folks no longer need worry about tending the graves. But is this better?

You will need to ask someone more comfortable with changes than I am. I may be the throwback to an earlier age, one of those people who has been dragged kicking and screaming all the way, before accepting them. Definitely death itself is less a burden on the family than it once was. We no longer tend to the dying in the home, living amid their suffering with no means to ease the pain. My grandmother died of cancer in our home when I was 12 and her agony still haunts me.

There is now the modern hospital with its professional care. When the end comes we no longer bring the dead back to the home to lie in state, although that custom is still followed by some, where round-the-clock vigils are kept with sleepless nights. But gone with it are the neighbors who once brought food and tended with us, offering all they were able in kindness and solace.

The funeral home chapel has replaced that, and I can say that it is much easier on the family. I grew up with frequent death it seems, or maybe the presence of it unduly influenced my young mind. Today, I cannot tolerate the sickly scent of fresh cut flowers in a flower shop, and I would never ever give flowers as a token of affection; they represent the dead, as some spot in my formative brain has relegated them.

Along with the changes in society I suppose it is inevitable that the way of death and its customs would change also. Folks don’t live close-knit in the country as they once did, and even those who have chosen the rural life are not bound by eking a living from the stingy hillsides, but are able to range more freely for jobs and acceptance in the outside culture. The cemetery is left to paid workers, as even those who would like to continue old traditions are hindered by time and distance.

So, now we show up not necessarily on a special day, but when we can arrange it, bearing tokens of artificial flowers, many garish, but proving that we have been there and alleviating the sense of guilt others would bestow upon us if we were derelict in our duties. Isn’t there something ironic in bearing tokens made in China? At least, for my personal taste, they don’t smell like real flowers!

We miss those visits with friends and neighbors, as each of us makes our own often solitary visit. The preacher is gone, the singers are gone, and gone are the playful days of childhood. But still present is that sense of duty, or guilt, if you will, that drives us to pay that visit. But will that continue in succeeding generations? I doubt it. I seldom see kids visiting the cemeteries. This custom is much like that in the churches with church dinner fund-raising events. My idea of eating out is to attend a church dinner where real home-cooked food is served with the proceeds going to a good cause. But it is now the old folks who are doing the cooking and serving. We saw one such cook recently who is known far and wide for her cooking talents, and when we asked when the next dinner would be held she said, “We’re all getting too old; there are no young people to help us out.”

And so it goes with many of the activities that those of us reared in the hills have seen vanish over time. And maybe it isn’t all bad. At least, kids won’t grow up with a phobia of freshly cut flowers associated with death, they won’t have memories of sitting up at night with the dead, and dirges of old hymns won’t echo in the soulful disharmony of mourners who felt a loss all too deeply, and they will no longer strain their guts out pushing old manual lawnmowers over briars and stubble to clear off a gravesite of someone who was a responsibility in death, as they were a joy in life.

Roads, cemeteries, the modern funeral homes, all changes here and there around us. But as was pointed out recently in one of my classes sponsored by the Appalachian Lifelong Learners and which was taught by my favorite “old professor,” Carl Taylor, don’t confuse change with progress. They often have entirely different meanings.


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