Tidings of comfort and joy

Graveyards are peculiar places to find evidence of Christmas cheer, but it’s there

Photo By David Robert

The ground is still sunken in. The patches of dead sod have yet to merge, leaving this plot an island in the sea of brown December grass. There is no headstone yet. Instead, the grave is marked with a pile of decorations. There are fake pink carnations, dried lilacs, pussy willows, a flag, a small pinecone wreath tacked onto the pile with a plastic hair clip, shiny red beads and dead roses. A deflated balloon says, “We miss you.” And on top of it all, peering out of his gold wire-rimmed glasses over the cemetery, is Santa.

So maybe the cemetery doesn’t sound like the most Christmas-y place in town. It lacks the bright lights of Idlewild Park and Hidden Valley, but the pine-bough wreaths, toy reindeer, Styrofoam snowmen and plastic candy canes left there are arguably the most meaningful Christmas decorations around.

As a child, I would voyage to the cemetery every year around Christmas with my father. We would place a wreath made from the bottom branches of our Christmas tree on my grandfather’s grave. It was as normal a Christmas tradition as hanging stockings or making cookies. Although I was only 7 when my grandfather died, and the sound of his voice and the color of his eyes were lost to my memory early on, it always felt right to check in with Papa at Christmas.

By laying a wreath at his grave at Yuletide, it was as if we were acknowledging him, saying, “You are still a part of the best parts of our lives.” And the visit always brought back and made me miss what I could remember. How fast he always walked, how he would play “You Are My Sunshine” on his harmonica while he balanced me on his knee, the way my tiny hand would wrap around one of his massive and weathered fingers as we wandered through his garden.

The decorations left at the modern-day cemetery lack the air of competition and showiness of the 12-foot inflatable snowmen around Reno’s neighborhoods. There is none of the overwhelming flair with which parking lot poles are decorated in an attempt to ensure that no one forget it’s Christmas.

Photo By David Robert

Graveyard décor is simpler and less obnoxious. An evergreen wreath with an unopened card, a red velvet bow tied to a vase, a wilted poinsettia with its $5.99 price tag still attached. These are decorations that have been placed with affection. These are the decorations that embody the Christmas spirit—giving to others, even when there is no satisfaction from a lit-up face or a thank-you.

On the grave of a 17-year-old “beloved daughter, sister, and fiance” sits a skinny and sparse tree, reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s special tree, carefully decorated with purple and blue glass bulbs. Instead of sitting atop the tree, a silver, snowflake-robed angel is staked into the ground above the headstone.

“Many of the Christmas trees are placed by parents who have buried children,” says Wayne Reynolds, president and CEO of Mountain View Cemetery, Reno’s largest cemetery with more than 48,000 graves. The cemetery allows the placing of holiday decorations on graves from Thanksgiving to Jan. 6.

Reynolds tells the story of one widow who came to visit her husband’s grave every day, several times a day, until her own death, wearing a dirt path into the grass from the curb to her husband’s plot. It is this idea of walking paths back to loved ones—maybe not every day of the year, but certainly at a time of year when we cherish our loved ones, those we have and those we have lost, that makes the cemetery’s plastic reindeer, silk poinsettias and tiny trees the most exceptional Christmas decorations around.

It may seem grim to think about how to deal with death at “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” but as Dr. Jason Luoma, a Reno clinical psychologist, explains, “It is normal to have feelings or memories related to a loss show up during the holiday season.”

Joyce, a newly widowed Reno resident, says she went Christmas shopping and instinctively headed right for the men’s section before catching herself and realizing that her late husband won’t be needing any gifts this year.

Photo By David Robert

“My heart just isn’t in it,” she says of her first Christmas without her husband. “It takes a lot to make up for 49 years together.”

“While many people find that the holidays can bring back loss-related feelings and memories, these experiences generally recede over time,” psychologist Luoma says.

“As time goes by, the decorations do generally fade off,” Reynolds notes. He’d know, having seen 45 Christmases come and go at Mountain View.

This is evidenced at Mountain View by rows of undecorated graves in the older parts of the cemetery. Here the winter grass has spread over the markers and must be brushed aside to read the epitaph of the World War I Veteran or the Loving Wife and Teacher. While one grave, marked 1969, is decorated with plastic holly and candy canes whose stripes have been bleached away by the sun, most of the decorations are concentrated in the newer parts of the 133-year-old cemetery.

As grandmas and uncles become great-grandmas and great-uncles, it makes sense that that the graves set into the ground in 1923 or 1934 or 1946 sit empty among the flurry of Christmas decorations that are concentrated in the Urn Garden of Memory, one of the graveyard’s newer sections.

The absence of yuletide adornment from certain newer graves doesn’t mean that the people buried under them are (or were) less loved than those with fully festooned Christmas trees, though.

“One common myth is that if one really loved the deceased, then grief should be intense,” explains Luoma. “In reality, the intensity of a person’s grief is unrelated to the intensity of their love for the deceased.”

Clearly, decorating graves at Christmas may not appeal to everyone’s seasonal sensibilities. But for those who do mark loved ones’ graves, the act of visiting and decorating a grave is just as significant an act for the living as it is meant to be for the dead. It is the living’s reaffirmation of their bond with the dead—the continued expression of relationships—that makes these acts significant.

“Memories of the deceased can be a reminder of the continuing importance of those people in our lives, while the holiday season can be an opportunity to recommit to making those relationships the most they can be," says Luoma.