The first Sunday in May—May 2nd this year—is Decoration Day at Memory Gardens on Highway 69 in Hardin County. It’s one of three cemeteries we own and the one where my parents are buried, so every year I travel south to make pictures and post them on the funeral homes’ Facebook page. And to say “hi” to Mother and Dad.
We never officially set a Decoration Day. As a matter of fact, for the longest we didn’t even know we had one. The folks with family buried there looked up the road a piece at Graham Cemetery and decided it made perfect sense to hold Decoration at Memory Gardens the same day as Graham’s . . . since they were so geographically close. And so it was. They just forgot to mention it to us for a few years.
On this particular Sunday I was racing the rain. Storms were predicted for the afternoon and evening, so I made my way to the cemetery a bit earlier than I usually do. Even at that, there were already folks there, walking the cemetery to admire the flowers, gathering around the graves of their family members to share stories and make pictures of everyone in attendance. A good many of the flowers had been placed the day before by families or florists, but there were still people exiting their cars, bouquets and children in hand, headed to the graves of their loved ones to honor those who lie beneath the sod and to teach their children to do the same.
A brief note of explanation before I continue. Whenever I enter a space, whether it be a store or a restaurant, a park or a cemetery, I try not to look at people. For one thing, I don’t want them to think I’m staring at them, which is, quite frankly, never the case. Through them, maybe, but never at them. For another, if they see me and they know me, conversation is then required. I’m just not very good at that. I always feel like my mouth begins operation before my brain engages . . . and the results aren’t always the best.
Given the foregoing explanation, I was focused on the flowers before me, trying to decide which ones to photograph, when I heard my name. Now, I may pretend I don’t see you (actually, there’s no pretending to it), but I won’t ignore you if you speak. So I looked up, searching for the source. It took me a moment to recognize him. He looked thinner . . . older than I remembered him looking when his wife died, which had been long enough ago for the monument to be in place but not for the freshly laid sod to have greened up. We spoke for a minute and then I left him to his contemplation. He had come to spend time with her, not with me, and as he stood, head slightly bowed, fidgeting with a twig he had picked up, I could tell these moments were hard. I don’t know how long he’d been there when I arrived, but shortly afterwards he slowly walked across the cemetery, got into his truck, and left.
As I watched him continue around the drive toward the south exit, a familiar figure caught my eye. He had been there the year before . . . and the year before that. As a matter of fact, he’d been making daily pilgrimages to the cemetery, weather permitting, for almost four years, often bringing his lawn chair and sitting with his wife for as long as Life would permit. I stopped and spoke with him one year, asking permission to take his picture and tell the world of his dedication, and he readily agreed. He showed me his yellow rose belt buckle and rolled up his sleeve to show me his yellow rose tattoo. He’d made it through years in the military and never been tempted to ink anything into his skin. But her favorite flower was a yellow rose, and that was the only reason he needed when she left him. The foundation of his dedication is his love for her, and I have no doubt that he’ll visit her grave as long as the good Lord lets him.
I wandered a while longer, around Serenity, across Christus, and into the Garden of Devotion. As I began to make my way back to my van, he had completed the slow walk back to his car. We left almost together, headed to very different places under very different circumstances. And as I drove, I thought a great deal about these two gentlemen—and all the other husbands and wives that I know are walking this same path. There is comfort to be found at the foot of those graves. They know someone they loved dearly and spent a lifetime with is no longer suffering. But there are also no more moments together. They come and they stand . . . or they sit . . . because at that place they are as close to that person’s physical remains as they will ever be again. At that place they can remember the past they shared . . . they can feel the loneliness of the present . . . and they can be reassured that someday in the future they will be together again.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.