When Kandy Dobbs Outlaw was a child, she put up some resistance when it was time for the annual Mother’s Day visit to the cemetery.
“Oh, I don’t want to go,” Outlaw recalls telling her mother. “Do I have to go?"
“Yeah, you’re going because I’m driving,” her mother would answer.
Going to the cemetery on Mother’s Day with her mom to visit departed family remained a tradition throughout Outlaw’s life. First she went as a young child, and then she went after losing her sister and father. Now, for the first time, she will go after losing her mother. Through it all, Mother’s Day cemetery visits—especially to Atlanta’s South-View Cemetery—have been a constant.
“[It] is not this long, drawn-out process, nor this longing feeling that I have to get sober and morbid and I’m going to see and honor the loss and all that,” says Outlaw, sitting in the sun-soaked front room of her house in Atlanta. “It can be a place of calm. It can be a place of beauty.”
Mother’s Day cemetery visits have a long history for many Black communities. At South-View, one of the nation’s oldest Black cemeteries, it’s the most popular weekend of the year, with an estimated 4,000 people in attendance, says Winifred Watts Hemphill, president of South-View Cemetery Association. Most years, South-View even orders Mother’s Day T-shirts for visitors.
[It] is not this long, drawn-out process, nor this longing feeling that I have to get sober and morbid and I’m going to see and honor the loss and all that,” says Outlaw…“It can be a place of calm. It can be a place of beauty.”
The historic South Atlanta cemetery has 80,000 people on its grounds, and inters approximately 400 people every year. South-View’s occupants have fascinating stories. Two members of the Guest family performed as the Pips with Gladys Knight. The parents of Martin Luther King Jr. still receive flowers. Julian Bond served in the Georgia House and Senate and as chairman of the NAACP. Henry McNeal Turner was a Reconstruction-era state legislator.
Hemphill remembers as a child in Durham, North Carolina, everyone at her church going to the cemetery after Sunday services on Mother’s Day.
“If you’ve lost your mom or if you’ve lost your grandmom, that’s a really important, central person to you,” says Hemphill, whose great-grandfather co-founded South-View Cemetery in 1886. She has served as president there since 2004. With generations of families buried there, South-View is a strong part of Atlanta’s history.
In Outlaw’s family, Mother’s Day cemetery visits began before she was born. When it was more common for families to maintain graves, Outlaw’s grandfather, who had lost his wife, took his kids to South-View.
“She had a method to her madness behind artificial flowers, knowing which ones to buy, not putting a whole lot of money into them, finding a type of flower that she really liked.”
“It was not necessarily to go have an old peaceful moment,” Outlaw says. “It was to go clean up. It was work. So he would have them brushing and cleaning the tombstone with toothbrushes. He wanted it immaculately clean.”
Later, when an Outlaw was a child, her mother, Blanche Courtney Roney Dobbs, took her on Mother’s Day from their Atlanta home to visit Dobbs’ mother’s grave in Tuskegee, Alabama, faux flowers in hand.
“She had a method to her madness behind artificial flowers, knowing which ones to buy, not putting a whole lot of money into them, finding a type of flower that she really liked,” Outlaw says.
At 10 years old, Outlaw lost her sister. She was buried at South-View along with Outlaw’s family on the paternal side, including her grandfather and her cousin John Wesley Dobbs, a prominent civic leader in Atlanta who advocated for Black suffrage and now has a street named after him downtown.
Together, Outlaw and her mother visited her sister on Mother’s Day.
“In the beginning, I was OK with it because I lost my sister, so I had personal reason to want to go there,” Outlaw says.
But as she became a teenager, reluctance took hold. Then life took her away from Atlanta. Outlaw went to university in Houston, married her high school sweetheart G.B. Outlaw (who goes by “Outlaw”) in 1985 and lived in Huntsville, Alabama. Her father, Wesley Thomas Dobbs, died in 1988. The Outlaws returned to Atlanta in 1995, when the oldest of their two children was in kindergarten.
Shortly after, Outlaw started accompanying her mother again to South-View on Mother’s Day, one of her mother’s two annual visits. Instead of being forced to go as a child, she chose to go as an adult.
“Planning her services, my mother did what I realized she did all of my life, and that was she made my life easy.”
“In those exchanges, we would joke,” Outlaw says, smiling. “We had a very healthy outlook about death... I used to joke with her, ‘I’m going to keep your gravesite clean. It'll be evidence that somebody's taking care of it, that somebody hasn't deserted you.’”
Her mom showed Outlaw which faux flowers to pick—white Easter lilies for spring, an autumn color for visiting in the winter between Thanksgiving and Christmas, perhaps greenery. These Mother’s Day outings became not just a way for Outlaw to connect with her mother and family tradition but also with herself. Outlaw started going to South-View on her own.
“[As] I would go more and more away from the death, farther and farther away from the death where the visit is not emotional and focused on the person, I would go more for the meditative and calming aspects of being there and knowing my family is there,” she says.
Today, Outlaw and her husband lead Next Progression, a leadership training company. Outlaw has short-cropped, curly hair showing some gray, and her bracelets jingle as she moves her hands to punctuate conversation. Her brick house in Collier Heights is neatly decorated and full of plants.
Outlaw holds the funeral program written by her mother, whose smiling photo adorns the cover. Dobbs died on Jan. 31 at 91 years old, but she had long prepared for it. For two decades, she maintained a plan for how she wanted her funeral to look, who would play the organ, what songs her loved ones would hear. She even wrote a memoir of sorts for her funeral program, all kept in a dresser drawer.
“Planning her services, my mother did what I realized she did all of my life, and that was she made my life easy,” Outlaw says, a light tremor in her voice. She sips a green smoothie with a lingering ginger zing to cleanse from the fried chicken and barbecue brought after her mother’s death.
This Mother’s Day will be the first year where Outlaw will visit South-View not with her mother but to see her. She looks forward to it. She knows which flowers to bring.
“I have such a high gratitude for my mother’s life and all that she left and taught us through her living,” Outlaw says. “I’ve even saved going to the cemetery for Mother’s Day because I want to do it, that is my desire is to go and pay homage and to pay thanks and to go in a great state of mind and to be happy and to thank my mother for giving all of her.”