Decorations for faithful departed

grave 01 It’s not often that you read a newspaper story and think of the afterlife. But The New York Timesstory on the popularity of decorating gravesites put readers in that unusual, and welcome, frame of mind.

Reporter Patricia Leigh Brown did a fine job of showing that Americans in this life continue to love those in the next. As Brown wrote at the end of her fine story about the American way of death:

Bernadette Filosa, a 56-year-old retired court administrator, hauled a Christmas tree out of her Prius to her parents’ graves, though it appeared to exceed the regulation height of four feet. Her mother, Bernadetta, who lived to 91, never lost sight of own parents’ Italian traditions — they ran an Italian restaurant across from Desilu Studios.

Ms. Filosa said she had been baking her mother’s favorite chocolate cookie recipe, with raisins, jimmies, cloves and chocolate icing. They were cooling back home.

“I’m making your cookies, Ma,” she said out loud as she wrapped garlands around the tree from the Home Depot. “We’re still celebrating.”

So popular has the custom of decorating gravesites become that cemetery officials are regulating the practice:

At the three cemeteries run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, Christmas decorating is now officially limited to flowers placed in a maximum of two urns and potted evergreens no more than 12 inches high, with weekly sweeps on offending Santa Claus blankets, Styrofoam candy canes and the like.

This news hit close to home. My maternal grandparents — the late, great Michael and Sally Naughton — are both buried at Holy Cross cemetery in Colma. The next time I visit them, I will watch what I bring.

Brown’s actual thesis, however, left several questions unanswered. What is driving the apparent trend toward decorating gravestones? Are there any statistics about its popularity? To what extent are these gravesite decorators influenced by their religion’s view of heaven and hell? Is this a Catholic thing? A sacramental thing? Jewish? Evangelical? This whole subject raises a lot of questions.

Thinking critically about death and gravesites is difficult. But Brown did manage to convey that for an unspecified number of Americans, death is not the end.

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  • Chas S. Clifton

    Don’t forget the floral-industry commercial angle too.

    The parents of a friend, florists in Pueblo, Colo., bought some mountain acreage west of the city for the sole purpose of having a reliable source of spruce and fir boughs, used to make “grave blankets,” which sold well at this time of year.

  • Julia

    This is on the related topic of decorating the sites where loved ones lost their lives in traffic accidents or murders.

    The first time I noticed it was the massacre in a McDonald’s out in California a number of years ago. It was in a Hispanic area and nobody would enter the store anymore. So the company tore down the store and it became a memorial park IIRC.

    After that I started noticing wreaths, crosses, flowers, and markers along highways where people had lost their lives in traffic accidents.

    Only two blocks from me there is a site in an empty lot by a back road which is taken by local high school students. A young high school girl lost her life at this particular site and a statue was placed there. It has been a number of years now but the site is routinely decorated with seasonal things around the year. There is a Christmas tree with lights and ornaments now. There is a small bench. There are flowers now and then. At Valentine’s day there are hearts. It’s like a roadside shrine.

    My guess is that we are adopting Hispanic customs. There is much more acceptance of death as part of life in the Hispanic community. I understnad that in addition to honoring the place where a person’s mortal remains are buried, Hispanics also memorialize the place where the soul left the body of a loved one.

  • David

    The commentary raises good questions. I assumed it was a Hispanic practice (from the same observations Julia made here in Southern California). Since I didn’t see much of this growing up (in a predominantly Catholic area of west Texas), I assumed it was more a cultural practice than a Catholic one. Has anyone seen other articles that addressed any of the questions raised above?