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Christmas Flourishes in Cemeteries

Cemetery: From the The Gainesville Sun

Around the country, this is the season when cemeteries become homes for many families’ second Christmas tree, where devotion meets tinsel, “Let It Snow” garden ornaments and the occasional Santa swizzle stick.

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Cemetery at Christmas

A kind of populist yuletide ritual is flourishing far from front yards, transforming the graves of loved ones into festive tableaux. Like memorial walls and the spontaneous shrines that appeared in Union Square in Manhattan after 9/11, displays in scores of cemeteries are at once intimate and public, their sheer exuberance often posing challenges for cemetery officials who find themselves issuing decorating regulations and occasionally enacting crackdowns on “nonconforming” grave décor.

This week, members of the Bailey family gathered, as they do every year, at the Holy Cross Cemetery and Mortuary here, better known as the final resting place of Bing Crosby, Bela Lugosi, Rita Hayworth and other Hollywood luminaries. Bearing a flotilla of evergreens, ornaments, guavas and oranges and carrying paper-cup offerings of tequila, coffee and cigarettes, they decorated the unadorned markers of their departed. Among them is Clarence Joseph Bailey, a tequila aficionado who died two years ago, at age 34, of diabetes.

With tiny white picket fences and garlands that glint in the sun, they fashioned an extension of their Christmas.

“The shopping, the dinners, the parties — you escape all that,” said Trina Bailey, 37, Mr. Bailey’s sister. “It’s comforting. There is a sense of calm. You forget the living world.”

At the three cemeteries run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, Christmas decorating is now officially limited to flowers placed in a maximum of two urns and potted evergreens no more than 12 inches high, with weekly sweeps on offending Santa Claus blankets, Styrofoam candy canes and the like.

“Decorations can be an impediment to backhoes, and there are liability issues in tripping over candy canes,” said Kathy Atkinson, the director of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “People understand this with their head,” she added. “But with their heart they need to do something.”

Though the tradition of decorating ancestors’ graves is an ancient one, most commonly associated in the United States with El Dia de los Muertos, or the Mexican and Latin American Catholic folk tradition of The Day of the Dead, the ritual is gaining a broader embrace.

From the Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago, where many people of Czech descent are buried, to San Fernando Cemetery II in San Antonio, and Asian cemeteries of Orange County, the decorations are so elaborate that they are being studied by folklorists.

“The grave has become the extension of the living room,” said Helen Sclair, a cemetery historian in Chicago. “If people decorate, they decorate. There seems to be no stop to it.”

In Culver City from Dec. 14 through Jan. 9, the official window for holiday decorating, the normally staid landscape of Holy Cross, one of 11 Catholic cemeteries run by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, becomes a glittering tribute to family creativity and loss. Many of the displays offer a collective act of devotion born from the unpredictability of life itself — car crashes, freak accidents, illnesses, murders, the incomprehensible sudden death of a child.

Milly Rodriguez spent four days decorating the grave of her daughter Vanessa, who died of cystic fibrosis last October at age 10, after a year in and out of Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. Mrs. Rodriguez festooned her holiday tribute with Disney princess lights and a Cinderella doll as the star. During visits, she uses the cigarette lighter in her car as a power source to light up the tree. The display is proof to her daughter “that life is still out there,” she said.

Although lights are officially prohibited by the archdiocese — along with trees taller than two feet, battery and electrically operated equipment, anchoring spikes, easily breakable ornaments and standing Santa Clauses, Nutcracker figures, snowmen — the urge to create has snowballed, making enforcement difficult. As when suburbanites bicker over property lines, tension among families occasionally occurs when displays spill over to neighboring headstones.

“We want everyone to be able to honor their loved ones in a way that is respectful to the person but also to the people around them,” said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

In Los Angeles, the combination of climate, immigration and cultural experimentation has made the city’s cemeteries something of an outdoor gallery at Christmastime. This is especially so in memorial parks, where acres of uniform flat stones “beg for personalization,” said Sandra Mizumoto Posey, a folklorist and assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.

The seasonal proliferation also reflects a broader emotional acceptance of memorials in the culture, as symbolized by the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, said David Sloane, a professor of planning at the University of Southern California and the author of “The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

In Los Angeles, cultures sit side by side, gravesite-to-gravesite. At the Asian Garden of Peaceful Eternity, a section of Westminster Memorial Park in Orange County, for instance, Tran Hop, who was born in Vietnam, combines the Vietnamese graveside tradition of lighting incense with a Christmas tree powered by a solar battery.

“We decorate like Caucasians,” he explained rather proudly. “We have been here for a long time. We are very easy to adopt.”

Nevertheless, cemeteries are not immune from the more secular competitive zeal seen in neighborhoods where huge inflatable Santas and computerized light displays now subsume front yards.

“Someone pushes the boundary a little bit and then someone else tries to top it,” said Stephen M. Goldstein, who gives monthly tours of Los Angeles cemeteries for the Studio for Southern California History and founded the Web site beneathlosangeles.com. “Then it becomes a thing.”

When 20-year-old Herberth Hernandez was killed recently, his brother Martin noticed the decorations in the cemetery. He was inspired to go all out, with a rich garden brimming with garlands, flowers and Superman balloons. “I think about him while I’m doing the work,” Mr. Hernandez said.

Despite snowless ground, to enter the nondenominational Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles, where Liberace, Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton lie, is to have no doubt that Christmas is near. Alicia Montés and her daughter Lyz, 15, prayed beside a fragile tableau of beaded garlands and home-made eggshell ornaments they created in honor of baby Ivan, Mrs. Montes’s first born, who died in childbirth 20 years ago.

Nearby, Bernadette Filosa, a 56-year-old retired court administrator, hauled a Christmas tree out of her Prius to her parents’ graves, though it appeared to exceed the regulation height of four feet. Her mother, Bernadetta, who lived to 91, never lost sight of own parents’ Italian traditions — they ran an Italian restaurant across from Desilu Studios.

Ms. Filosa said she had been baking her mother’s favorite chocolate cookie recipe, with raisins, jimmies, cloves and chocolate icing. They were cooling back home.

“I’m making your cookies, Ma,” she said out loud as she wrapped garlands around the tree from the Home Depot. “We’re still celebrating.”

From the The Gainesville Sun