My maternal grandparents, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law are all buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama. When that cemetery was first constructed and for many years afterwards, it served funeral needs of very wealthy and prominent white citizens and was located in an upper-class white neighborhood. There are huge walk-in mausoleums bearing names of founders of the city. One section has a beautiful thatched umbrella canopy covering seats and a little bridge over a thin water display where children could play or families could picnic. My memories of Elmwood turn around the many Sundays after church when Mamie, my mother, and I would pack a picnic lunch, load up on small gardening tools, and go tidy our lot. Being there clearly met some deep sense of loss my mother felt about not having her beloved mother to turn to. What helped us each time we went was having a little water spigot at curbside very near our lot. Beside it always was some kind of plastic or wooden container into which any one could put water from that spigot to refresh the grass or fill vases holding real flowers or help grave tenders wash bird droppings or mud from the headstones of their loved ones.
As demographics of who lived where in Birmingham began to shift as black residents exercised new rights hard won in the 1960s, white relatives of people buried in Elmwood began to shun going to their grave sites because the neighborhood changed in ways that disturbed them. They reported not feeling “safe.” Blacks began buying real estate, so white flight took over, and within a decade or two, the neighborhood was predominantly black or poor white. By then I lived in Minnesota, but whenever I visited cousins in Birmingham, I always drove to see our lot. As long as my older sister was alive, she paid the cemetery for “special care,” which meant our grass was watered and mowed more carefully around the standing marker than was true for those not paying for that service. When she died, I stepped in and began writing monthly checks to Elmwood. To my deep dismay, by the 1980s I couldn’t really tell the difference between how our graves looked and the ones not boasting a little marker stuck into the ground reading “Special Care.” So I canceled the service and found with the help of my relatives a private service to take its place. Chris, a serious gardener, who happens to be a black man, plants pansies every fall and marigolds every spring. He uses his own hand mower so the grass looks neat, since the cemetery stopped paying anyone to do that since so few white people visited their families. It pleases me to know real care is given to the graves.
Chris usually sends me a picture of his two plantings, so this past April I got the usual photograph showing bright marigolds all around the big marker. A few days ago, my cousin sent me a photo from her smart phone showing her at our grave site. Imagine my surprise when I saw no marigolds–just grass carefully cut all around the Hurley-McNaron-McAllister marker. When I e-mailed Chris to ask where the orange blooms were, he wrote apologizing and saying that the extreme heat visited upon Birmingham this year due to global warming had killed the marigolds. Before I read his next paragraph I felt mildly irritated, since I as another serious gardener here in Minnesota where it has also been unusually hot this summer just run up my water bill. So why hadn’t he gone more often to use the spigot and water the marigolds.
The next sentence said it all: “I simply couldn’t protect them since the cemetery has turned off water for the entire grounds and the heat just beat them down.” Surely the officials at Elmwood would never have dared do such a cruel thing if the white survivors of those interned there were still driving to place flowers or just say hello to a loved one. Without water at such a locale, grass will of course wither and die in summer. Without water at such a locale, no fresh flowers can last past a day or so. Without water at such a locale, love and remembrance withers. Many people of various faith communities or psychological persuasions tell us that someone doesn’t die as long as s/he is remembered. Surely a cardinal reason for cemeteries is to provide a space for the living to remember the not-living, to keep them close in our hearts and our memories. So turning off the water because Elmwood is surrounded by middle-class black families is not an example of what many today speak of as racist “micro-aggressions.” And the fact that white owners of all those lots haven’t risen up in mass protest at what is being denied to them speaks of silent collusion in racism at its most obvious.