Burial Customs / Vanishing Cemeteries of the Southwest

Nothing is familiar at Yuma Cemetery save the long cedar needles that lie scattered across the sand and the queer excitement of coming upon special graves. Two recent burials have been paved over with concrete; their freshly painted crosses are too bright among the older, dust-laden, wind-stripped monuments. A year has gone by since I first walked here, but unlike last spring, the loose soil is bound by tufts of short grass stimulated by this winter’s exceptional rains. The old comfort returns, and a kind of happiness. I feel close to these places, as if each is filled with friends. Not the people buried here, whom I could never know, but the monuments themselves.

A Roman family planted a cedar tree near the house when someone died, in order to warn away the Pontifex Maximus, who must avoid the contamination of death. In Ajo’s tiny cemetery, familiar cedars nod benignly over the rows of graves. A few plots are surfaced with artificial turf, with tiles or colored stones, but most are covered with concrete that has been thickly coated with white paint. Traditional iron and wood crosses have been supplanted by commercial headstones. Prosperity brings formality. It’s a lovely graveyard, but lacks the mystery of Tubac, or the potent intimacy of Casa Grande.

Two young men pace their work to the heavy metal music playing on their truck stereo. They rake the family plot, return dirt to the mound above a simple grave, clear away holiday decorations and prop up fallen saints. One wears a T-shirt emblazoned Shit Happens. Both wear baseball caps pulled tightly over their foreheads.

“Let’s do half today and quit,” one urges.

“OK by me,” the other answers.

“Ready then?” They throw their tools into the bed of the truck.

“How ‘bout a six-pack at Ray’s?”

“Let’s do it.”

Estruscan mourners staged blood combat over new graves, the munera, or funeral honors that the Romans continued as gladiatorial games. Blood, and its symbolic equal, wine, and in these graveyards beer, was spilled on sand or earth to settle the restless hungers of the dead. Comanche women slashed their bodies with shards of metal or glass, or with knives or fingernails, to keep the wounds flowing for months, to the same end.

Arizona town cemeteries, where families buried their dead as they pleased; built shrines and memorials out of whatever they had at hand, and left “presents” of cigarettes, beer, candy and favorite jewelry and photos, returning on holidays, or any day, as needed, to talk to their dead. Despite the Catholic religious affiliation, the graves were utterly pagan in attitude and atmosphere.

These places were my refuge when graduate school became an idiotic waste of time.

I signed up for a photography course in order to have access to a darkroom, and spent many happy hours wandering throughout southern Arizona taking photos. I felt at times that I was “stealing” images from another time and dimension; an ancient world of great beauty and human depth of feeling. I never really became good at printing images, and the images don’t capture what I felt.

The “newer” extensions of the cemeteries were becoming “lifeless” – sod was laid (ridiculous in Arizona, where irrigation is a necessity) and flat metal head markers were required to make mowing the grass easy. Rules and restrictions for “flowers only” – no gifts. Truly awful.

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