Each and every one of us will die one day. The older I get, the more accepting I’ve become that death is my final destination. When I was young, I thought of death as something way off in the future. Years back, that used to be the mindset of everyone who was young. Now with young people dying daily from senseless gun violence, death has become a fingertip reality. And because so many young people are dying, it’s also changing the way we participate in funerals and grave memorials.
Memorial Day was this past Monday. Originally created to memorialize those who had given their lives in military service, it has become an opportunity to remember all those who are no longer with us. And as I pass the multitudes of cemeteries in the various areas of the city, I can’t help but notice the way gravesites are no longer the somber realm of my youth. Instead many have taken on the appearance of mini-festivals, fairs, and circuses.
Several days ago, I was driving northbound on Harlem, approaching Cermak. I looked to my left and saw a sea of pastels. There were balloons, wind spinners, flags, real and artificial flowers, stuffed animals. You name it. Had I not known better, I would have wondered what was happening at that park. But I knew it was a graveyard. And what I was witnessing was a cultural phenomenon occurring right before our eyes. It is not confined to one cemetery but to a lot of them if they have space where younger people are being buried. We are seeing how young people and middle-age adults are dealing with the deaths of young people. The once rare phenomena of a young person dying is now a daily occurrence. So our funerals and graveyards are reflecting the attitudes of those who are generations younger than I and their need to honor the dead.
I am neither a proponent nor opponent of the idea. It is a reflection that graveyards are no longer the dominion of the old. Truth is that, after having lived a long life, nobody would have decorated Grandma and Grandpa’s grave with wind spinners, balloons and all sorts of paraphernalia. As we sit on the cusp of this changing cultural phenomenon, we need to do some soul searching as a society. We can’t control death in old age, but we can do better controlling the number of young people who die from senseless gun violence.
We should have a PSA showing an old part of the cemetery versus the sections where the young are now being buried and asking of America, “The young have always been the trendsetters for this nation. But is this the trend we want to set?” The somber-but-visual reality is a wake-up call, long overdue.
Arlene Jones writes a weekly column for our sister publication, the Austin Weekly News.