Visiting dearly departed is like a day at the park

For Latvians, cemeteries are joyful places, partly because we do considerable socializing there and partly because we feel adrift if we have no graves to attend to. Those who lie in the cemetery continue to claim us: they are ever in the forefront of our minds.

Sometimes I wonder if it's a kind of national pathology: we always feel something is being taken away from us and we don't want to let go. Or perhaps it's due to our pagan heritage. After all, Latvians have worshipped nature and the body far longer than God or spirit.

My first experience with the Latvian way of death occurred when my grandmother died at the Russian old people's home in West Germany in 1956. The morning the telegram arrived, Mother had already announced at the breakfast table that she thought Grandmother was dead because of the dream she had had the previous night. So the telegram was simply a confirmation. But foreknowledge did not lessen Mother's grief, nor ours.

There was some consolation for Mother in the photographs Grandfather mailed us of Grandmother lying in the glossy black coffin shaped like those I had recently seen in Dracula movies.

"It is a simple pine box," Mother said, "for the coffin is not as important as the grave."

It was more than the coffin that disturbed me. It was the photographs, black-and-white postcards actually, that I found shocking.

Grandmother had been photographed from above, from the side, and from her feet - as if I were eye-level with them and looking up over her torso to her face. There were also photos of the ceremonial walk to the gravesite and at the grave. The best one was of Grandfather in his black karakula hat, for it was January. He stood close beside the tall gravestone almost as if it were Grandmother herself and he ready to put his arm around her shoulder or waist one more time. Later I realized every family has such a collection of "funeral photos," which are mailed to those who were not able to be in attendance.

The grave itself is a kind of surrogate for the person buried, for not only does it require grooming, it has to be blessed by the minister or priest at the annual cemetery festival the year following the funeral. This day is as important as one's wedding with the church sending out an invitation to join the newly dead in the blessing of their tombstones.

Burial is what most Latvians request, preferably in "light sand," and on "higher ground." Generally speaking, only the bohemian types request cremation, but even they usually expect to be buried. "Scattering" suggests dismemberment - ashes need to remain "intact," for otherwise there would be no grave, no tombstone, no blessing, no "person."

Even though Latvians in the U.S. have their own sections in American cemeteries, they are often frustrated by restrictions, such as no flowers and no headstones higher than the highest notch on a lawnmower. In Latvia each family is responsible for its own gravesite, and as a consequence, cemeteries are so lovely they are often identified in brochures as destinations for tourists.

Each gravesite is a miniature park. The grave mound itself may be covered by crepe myrtle, or by a border of "ice flowers." Behind the headstone is a profusion of whatever flowers grow best in that location and soil. Hedges usually separate one site from another.

Commonly, there is a bench because the idea is to spend time, to visit. In the trunk of his car, everyone has a rake, a watering can, a dust rag and clippers in order to rake the dirt in a prescribed pattern, wash the headstone, and water, weed, and trim the dead blooms.

Last month my cousins and I, together with our men, sons, and one daughter-in-law and grandchild flew to Latvia with my cousin's father's (my uncle's) ashes. We went to the cemetery where our grandmother's family is buried. This is where on cemetery festival day our grandparents always hitched up the horses and took a picnic of roasted chicken, cucumber, tomato, sour cream and dill salad. It is where our mothers ate tiny "water pretzels" (bagels) threaded on string while they ran and played among the dead.

After the funeral, and before the dinner elsewhere, we unpacked the cars and presented our guests with stuffed mushrooms, wine and vodka.

A short distance away, little Joey-Love, my cousin Renate's granddaughter, sat down in the dirt and picked up one handful after another, tossing each one in the air. She was not playing, but practicing what she had just learned. Before a Latvian is buried, each guest tosses two handfuls of beloved earth onto his coffin.

n Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing at Western Nevada Community College.


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