A Chair for the Dead

An odd little chair used to sit in the corner of my weaving studio, more in the way than useful. I can’t recall how it came to be ours, but someone had cut down its legs so most people found it way too low, though it fit my five-foot frame perfectly.

When I read about the practice of placing an old chair in the yard as an invitation to include a deceased family member in our ongoing lives, I took this chair out near our picnic table for my deceased daughter Randi. Later I moved it away from easy view under the shade of a huge juniper tree. The next summer I sat beside it often as I wrote. Somehow it was solace just to be near that chair.

The backstory of this practice began in the 19th century, post-Civil War southern United States where African-Americans, many of them former slaves or their descendants, had a long history of suppression of their cultural and artistic expressions. Not to be restrained, they found a way to create art in their yards from cast-off objects that appeared, to outsiders, to be just plain old junk.

This junk has hidden meanings encoded into it like a secret language and yard art is often used to commemorate beloveds who have died. What looks like only a wrecked pedal sewing machine rusting away in the rain, to the family honors their grandmother. An assemblage of broken-handled shovels and rakes, a blackened wrench, half a pair of pliers lying about in an apparently random pile may have been carefully arranged as a memorial to a hardworking father.

And a chair, with its cane seat sagging or broken rungs or wobbly legs, is an invitation to a beloved’s spirit that says, “You are welcome here. We love you. We still heed your words and your wisdom.”

Nestled up against our latilla fence, Randi’s chair could be seen from half my house. I worried that someone might sit in it, though no one ever did. It stayed there for a year, until I felt called to move it further away. I wondered if I was putting it in the shade to protect my daughter’s fair skin, as if that could matter to her anymore. Now I can’t see the chair without deliberately visiting it, which I did frequently at first and seldom do anymore. I’ve noticed its paint is peeling. This all seems to reflect the evolution of my grieving from a constant and pressing awareness to a more occasional one.

I like the secrecy of the language hidden within this chair. I like that no one asks why it’s there, that it’s simultaneously public and quite private. It holds another layer of secret meaning as well. Because of its African-American roots it honors the multi-racial mix of our family. I am Caucasian, as was my daughter. This chair commemorates her choice to partner with an African-American man and the mixed-race arm of our family line they began together.

If you have ever driven through the southwestern United States you may have seen small white crosses along the highways. Some are elaborately decorated. Some have names or dates painted on them. These crosses are called descansos (descanso means “rest” in Spanish). Each one commemorates someone who has died in an automobile accident, yet another way of honoring the memory of the dead. It is touching to drive by as families gather to refurbish these crosses or to add a circle of stones.

We humans want and need to maintain connection with and to honor those who have died. My personal experiences and the research for my book show me that the dead also want to keep in contact with us. Whether we put an old rocking chair in the yard or a small pebble by our apartment door or a descanso by the road, any of these can help to keep the connection with a dead beloved strong.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Watch for pre-ordering in July. www.anniemattingley.com

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