Today begins o-Higan, the week of the spring equinox, which is a national holiday in Japan. It is also traditionally a time to visit grave sites. However, unlike Bon, when everyone and their dog returns to their ancestral home to visit family graves, Higan is practiced mostly by those living near the graves of their relatives. Most people leave a few cut green branches and flowers by the graves and pour water over the gravestone to complete the ritual.
This is in contrast to the U.S., where, as my 69-year-old-aunt so eloquently puts it, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” And don’t expect anyone to visit your grave after you’re gone, except when other family members die and join the plot. OK, OK, we might visit graves two or three times during our lives, but every spring and fall equinox plus Bon? Such organized ancestor worship is unheard-of in my country.
So I was surprised when I was home last week and my mother dragged me to a grave site of a relative who died 201 years ago. “Your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather is buried at the Gold Star Chili,” she informed me. We drove for an hour on the highway until we got off at an exit with a row of fast food restaurants. My mother turned into the Gold Star Chili parking lot and parked behind the building. In the green grass between the restaurant and the road was a small white fence around a gravestone that said, “Ezekiel Walker, 1745-1805.”
Ezekiel’s grave site was on the corner of what used to be his 40-hectare farm, which was mostly wilderness at the time he died. The only reason Ezekiel hadn’t been bulldozed up by now was that there is a law in Ohio that says whoever acquires land with grave sites on it must maintain them. So the developer put up the white fence and dutifully keeps the grass cut and the weeds down. He even had the headstone professionally cleaned!
“Ezekiel, a graduate of Harvard, fought in the Revolutionary War,” my mother explained. “As a direct descendant of a Revolutionary War soldier, that makes you a daughter of the American Revolution!”
My mother climbed over the fence, stuck one of those little American flags into the ground next to his grave, and we completed our first Higan grave site visit. Little did I realize how much Gold Star Chili and I had in common.
I beamed with the results of my first Higan visit. Surprised to have found a part of me I never knew existed, I thought, why stop here? We should do a little grave-hopping. After all, it’s Higan!
“Mother, come with me,” I said excitedly as I got behind the wheel of the car. “We’re going to Memphis. We’re goin’ to Graceland!”
Ten hours later, and an hour wait to get into the Graceland mansion, we were finally in front of a wrought iron fence around a gravestone that said, “Elvis Aaron Presley, 1935-1977.”
As you might expect, a musician who sold over a billion records and starred in 31 movies has quite a grave site following. People from all over the world come to visit Elvis, even the Japanese.
And I have to admit, while taking the tour through his mansion and hearing all his songs that I’ve known forever, I found a part of me I never knew existed: my inner Elvis. Yes, Elvis must be my great-grandfather of rock ‘n’ roll. That makes me a daughter of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution! I stuck one of those little American flags next to his grave and beamed with the results of my second Higan visit. I’m beginning to like this “oh, he gone” stuff.
As we left Elvis’ grave in Meditation Garden, next to his swimming pool, I took a quick look around. Not a Gold Star Chili in sight. Well, not yet, anyway.