Every Christmas, the cemetery where my son has been laid to rest sends a mailer offering to place Christmas decorations on his grave for me. Throughout the year, I think of my son as being alive in Christ, present in the chalice, and always available to respond to prayerful requests (Luka, run and help her!) Then the annual mailer shows up, and I am reminded of the other truth: my son is in a box in the ground, buried in a spot I haven’t visited or decorated in some time.
When Luka died, we buried him about half a mile from our house. For at least the first year, I was there every day. I had no choice, it seemed. I needed to sit there, to pray, to find some quiet and to connect with my grief and with my son. Over the years, I needed to visit less often. We moved a few hundred miles away, and the visits became quarterly and then annual, and now they are haphazard: if I am in the area for some reason, I stop by. But I don’t make plans to drive the four hours specifically to visit his grave.
Usually, this doesn’t bother me. I pray for Luka at least once a day, and I know he prays for me. We meet in the chalice, and we know that we love one another. Through prayer and the sacraments, I find that we are in constant communion.
But then, that mailer comes and I feel like a neglectful parent, and I am compelled to send them $50 so that if someone walks past my boy’s grave between December 10 and January 10, they’ll know that he was loved because they’ll see a wreath sitting beside his headstone. But as the years go by, it’s a little less compelling every year. What is wrong with me?
The cemetery makes a profit off these holiday products, but they also perform a valuable service. There are some people who yearn to know that they decorated a beloved person’s grave — there were years when I needed to know that I had done that — and they’ll arrange everything across the miles. May it be blessed.
The grave blanket tradition has always creeped me out. It’s just a lovely bed of pine branches and ribbons laid out over the rectangle of the grave — but the word ‘blanket’ implies that our loved ones are cold down there, and that somehow we can warm them up with these branches. That really works on my head. When you have buried a little baby in a box and left him there all winter, you really cannot let thoughts of whether he’s cold or not enter your head. That is a sure path to madness.
For the first few years, we would bring a little tree to the cemetery and decorate it. Then we started just placing a nice wreath at his headstone. But this year, I don’t think I want to do any of it any more. My increasing lack of interest in decorating my son’s grave is not callousness, and it’s not just because he’s a little boy and probably isn’t into wreaths and ribbons. (I imagine that if he were alive and 13, he’d be asking for an iPhone instead.) It’s because it just doesn’t make sense for me anymore.
Most of the time, I know that Luka is alive in the Kingdom with Christ, and that he’s connected to me still. We pray for each other. I make koliva and invite my parish to join us in prayer for him on the anniversary of his death each year. I send him on errands: Luka, run with that ambulance and take care of the people in need! Luka, watch over your sister! Luka, pray for your mommy, she needs some help right now! Luka, run to your auntie, she needs you. Like all of the saints, he is alive and interceding for us.
But there’s a part of the year when I think of his grave and wonder how important it is to decorate it. I am beginning to believe that it’s one of those things that is intended to be a blessing to the living. As long as it helps me to decorate and visit, as long as it heals and relieves me, then it’s a good thing. But as soon as it’s fed by guilt and obligation, then it’s no longer a blessing, and it’s ok to move on.
A mother is never supposed to move on. But then, I suppose that over the years, I have to let go of some practices I keep with my living children. Eventually, I’ll stop telling them when to go to bed, and I’ll stop providing their clothing and even their meals. It’s all part of a natural order with living, growing children, and maybe somehow it becomes part of the natural order of grief too. There’s a way that a mother steps back, but never stops loving.
When I think of the people buried in Luka’s cemetery, and in cemeteries all over the world, it strikes me that so many of the mourners left behind don’t know how to pray for them. I grew up in a tradition that lost the ability to pray for the dead. My parents taught me that praying for the salvation of the dead betrayed a lack of trust in God. Once saved, always saved. If your loved one loved Christ and accepted Him as their personal Lord and Savior, even for a moment, then all was well. Only those who did not trust in the saving power of the blood of the lamb would think that it was important or necessary or helpful to pray for the soul of a dead person.
It makes me so sad to see how the devil has succeeded in leading so many Christians away from praying for their reposed loved ones. It’s a real victory for him, and a wound in the souls of those who cannot pray for their dead. I went to my own father’s funeral and sat for over an hour listening to people talk — and not once did we pray for his soul. (Well, not until I stood up and lead a prayer for his soul. But only my Catholic friend and I understood why that mattered, or that it was theologically appropriate.) May God have mercy on all those souls for whom no one prays. Maybe tonight we can all pray for all of them, since no one else is doing it.
If I had never found Orthodoxy, if God had not shown me the mercy of leading me here, perhaps I would still feel this compulsion to continue my supplications for my boy, but I would resist it, intent on proving my faith and trust in God. I would not make koliva and be joined by my loving community in prayer for him. Perhaps then I would need to purchase a wreath for his grave today. But instead, let me say my prayers and send him on errands, and send that $50 to a worthy charity in his name.
May his memory be eternal, and may all those who grieve find comfort in the Lord. Amen.