Grave Decoration and Deep Time: A Poem

bouquet on headstone on grass

This poem about synthetic grave decoration is part of the Troubling Time series, which interrogates environmental ideas, spaces, processes, and problems through the lens of temporality. Series editors: Rebecca Laurent, Rudy Molinek, Samm Newton, Prerna Rana, and Weishun Lu

“Grave Decoration Rules Are in Effect” emerges from queer ecological approaches to environmentalism. It attempts to blur the boundaries between nature and culture, the authentic and the artificial, as these boundaries are constructed and full of contradiction. Urban cemeteries, such as the one that is subject of this poem, are spaces that show these boundaries blurring. They are spaces with dirt and worms and bird songs, and they are spaces that are maintained and monitored. They are spaces where we confront death and decay, and they are spaces where we attempt to control it. Much of that control is attempted through the use of chemicals. And through our intermingling with such synthetic substances, we trouble time.

a woman holding flowers in front of her face
Author photo of Madeleine Bavley, 2024.

While embalming is practiced by few cultures, it is common in the United States. The embalming process uses a combination of fluids consisting often of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, and methanol, among others. The process is an attempt to preserve the body, pausing it in a specific moment in time, at least aesthetically. After a body is embalmed and emboxed, it is common for the burial site to be decorated with flowers, often artificial ones. Artificial flowers, which are created out of some combination of plastics such as polyester and polyethylene, are less likely to exhibit the effects of time than their cellulosic counterparts. Like the bodies buried beneath them, artificial flowers are also paused in a specific moment in time, though their preservation is a disclosure of their lifelessness. 

Few synthetic substances demonstrate the ability to trouble time as effectively as plastic. When we engage with plastic, we are making contact with ancient organisms while creating artifacts for future ones. Though plastic is impressively durable and incapable of biodegradation, it is also most often interacted with as disposable. Even when treated as single-use, plastic is situated in deep time.

These synthetic substances attempting to preserve the appearance of life are likely rather harmful to life itself. However, I am cautious to critique the use of chemicals without considering counter-perspectives. Perhaps the small pleasures—even, and especially, those that are junky or jejune—are still worthwhile in these compromised times. After all, we are all grieving something, and most grief is too unwieldy to be subject to guidelines.

Featured image: Artificial flowers on headstone. Photo by author, 2024.

Madeleine Bavley resides in the American West. After receiving her M.A. in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah, she has been teaching, writing, and working with the soil. Most of her writing engages queer ecological approaches to environmentalism, exploring pleasure as a mode of resistance and reimagining. Her pleasures include, but are by no means limited to, dinner parties and desert wandering.