For over 40 years, Kathy Gardener of Olivet has been making grave blankets. Kathy began her career as a cosmetologist and later went on to become an instructor, which she said she loved very much. “I have been gardening since I was four years old. It’s been my hobby all these years – and now it’s my addiction,” said Gardener. “I love plants and watching them grow.” Her passion led her to start taking classes at Michigan State University; one thing led to another and she eventually became an advanced master gardener. With such talent and creativity, pictures of her previous home were featured in Better Homes and Gardens at one time.
For Gardener, the inspiration to create grave blankets ultimately began with her own motherly instincts and a desire to comfort herself and her young daughter, Rachael, who had passed away in late October some 35 years ago. Gardener set out to find information and teach herself the best way to make a grave blanket, and how to utilize it once created. Her research revealed that most cemeteries in the area allow grave blankets to be placed from November 1st through March 1st (with the exception of Fort Custer Cemetery). The blankets do need to be anchored down before the ground freezes.
What is a grave blanket, you ask? According to Askthedirector.com, “A grave blanket is an arrangement of evergreen boughs. Typical fresh flower arrangements cannot withstand the colder northern temperatures, so the evergreen blankets are designed to last longer. These evergreen boughs may be decorated with ribbons, flowers, or pinecones. Often the materials are attached to a foam or wire base that can be attached to the ground to keep the grave blanket from blowing away. They come in many different shapes and sizes.”
Grave blankets are typically placed over graves before the first snow. The tradition began as a way to keep the deceased warm during the winter. Today, they are also used to honor and remember a loved one who has passed. Often, they are made by hand, giving family members an opportunity to remember and honor their loved one. Grave blankets serve as a physical way for families to express their emotions. Originally most grave blankets were used throughout the Christmas season, which is why many incorporate the use of seasonal evergreens. Now, however, it is becoming more common for grave blankets to be used to commemorate other events such as birthdays or anniversaries.
Each year since the first one, Gardener makes at least 45 grave blankets – all with a personal touch. She goes through 15-20 evergreen trees (depending on the size) from a local tree farm that she will cut down, with the help of her husband, the first week in November. She makes the anchors from clothing hangers. Most grave blankets are at least five feet long and four feet wide, with an average weight of about 20 pounds. Silk flowers, pinecones, and bows are incorporated to customize the blankets.
Gardener shared that she takes on this project each year because she cares, and wants to make sure that blankets are made with quality, beauty, caring and respect. For the past 15 years, Gardener aims to donate a grave blanket to someone who has lost a loved one that year. This first started, she said, when she was doing some landscaping at a funeral home, and she was asked to help bring a plant inside on one of the dollies. “I noticed a small casket off in a room,” Gardener recalled, “and I asked, ‘you don’t have a little one in here, do you?’ Yes, was the reply. The little girl was only 19 months old. I started crying as there were no flowers. After I had finished my work, I went and had a casket spray made with a pink teddy bear in the center.” Gardener explained, “A week after the child’s funeral I went to pay my respects at the cemetery, and the manager asked me if I was the one who sent the flowers. He told me those were the only flowers she received, and again I cried. Every year, there are flowers for Memorial Day and a grave blanket for the little girl, Ania, who I have never met.” It is a tangible way to express care for someone who deserves to be remembered.
In addition to the grave blankets she donates, Gardener enjoys helping others by creating a special blanket for their loved ones. She has done a variety of colors including red, powder blue, royal blue, purple, yellow, pink, and patriotic. She explained, “Your loved ones are important to you, therefore they are important to me.” Gardener will work with individuals to design a blanket or pillow that will bring comfort, and pay respect to their loved ones over the winter.
To learn more about grave blankets, call Kathy Gardener at (269) 274-3266. She says, “Everyone should be loved and remembered. For those who would like to order a grave blanket or pillow for their loved one or their pet, there is still time.” Arrangements can be made for pick up, or Gardener will meet her customers at the cemetery to install and anchor their grave blanket.
More than décor, Gardener creates warmth through compassion