Saturday, June 2, 2012

two headstones for Mom, or the curious business of death

Half a century ago, my mother's parents bought a piece of a cemetery in their home town in northern Minnesota. I'm not sure how many grave sites they bought—my guess is eight or twelve. I think they imagined their descendants returning in death to gather for eternity.

That ain't gonna happen.

My brother and his family have lived in New Mexico for decades. They're part of a church there. They have no reason to transport their bodies or ashes thousands of miles to be buried in a place they never loved.

Emma and I are back in Minneapolis, and my instructions for my body are simple: whatever Emma wants to do. I've always admired the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence and American Indian burial platforms. I'd kind of like to be stuffed and placed by the door where I could hold coats and umbrellas at parties, but the cost wouldn't be worth the joke. Burn me, bury me, scatter me, stuff me, or leave me to rot where I won't inconvenience anyone—it's all good. If my spirit will linger anywhere, it'll be somewhere more interesting than the last bits of my body.

These are my grandparents' graves in Minnesota:


Mom used to talk about donating her body to science, but she mentioned that less often in later years. When my sister died suddenly, they buried her ashes in a small country graveyard near her farm in Manitoba. Mom decided to be buried next to Liz, and Dad, who, I suspect, wanted to die at sea in a storm and never found a storm strong enough to kill him,  has agreed to be buried with them. Currently, half of Mom's ashes are buried by this marker:


Mom mentioned to my niece once that she would like half of her ashes to be buried with her parents, so I accepted the job of making that happen.

Which may've been a bad idea, because at a basic level, I just don't understand graveyards. If you want to spend money on someone, spend it on them while they're alive.

I understand memorial services. They're not for the dead. They're for the grieving.

But I don't understand spending money to mount a piece of rock in a field that could be a park or farmland or a nature preserve. If you need more than your memories to remember someone, keep a photo or something that person had. In my living room, I have a small metal pitcher that was in Mom's bedroom when she died. It's more than enough for me to remember Mom.

I wanted to plant something over her ashes in Minnesota, then decide whether there should be a formal marker also, but my brother and my niece want a headstone, and I love them, so there'll be a marker in Minnesota as well as Manitoba. Something that should look nice near Mom's parents' graves will cost about $700, which is either too much or too little to spend on remembering someone you love, but that's the business of death for you.

18 comments:

  1. >But I don't understand spending money to mount a piece of rock in a field that could be a park

    But cemeteries *are* parks. And that hunk of rock is as close to immorality as most will ever get.

    You and Emma of course will be remembered long after your scrawny vegetarian corpses dissolve to dust, if only by some 23rd century grad student writing a diss. on the literature of the late 20th C. USA.

    I'll avoid writing a a couple hundred words on where our burial practices come from; suffice to say they just might be related to elite Roman habits...

    I have a classic Italian home cookbook to translate...

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    1. I do like cemeteries as parks--I like paths and statues. But among the things I don't get is why people want to be remembered by strangers as a name on a rock. I get wanting to leave the world a better place in some small way. But everyone who knew Mom knew she did that.

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    2. Ah, but that's the key... it matters *more* that it's a stranger - someone who might read your name aloud, think about what you did, and say "I'd like to have known him".

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    3. Hmm. Okay, I kinda get that, but then you need an epitaph like

      Lester Moore
      Four slugs
      From a .44
      No Les
      No more

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    4. Or you could go the Roman route and list your accomplishments and the ways you've carried on the honor of your family.

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    5. Now you're pointing in the general direction of something I especially don't like, the Keeping Up with the Joneses aspect of the funeral biz. And if your deeds don't speak for themselves, listing them on a rock is silly.

      Mind you, I read "Ozymandias" at a very impressionable age.

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    6. I think the Romans (and Greeks before them) understood that with time, even the greatest among them would be lost to human memory. So they ensured through their funeral monuments that not just the specific individual but also his family would be remembered.

      Which is not to say that there wasn't a *lot* of jostling for position in terms of tomb location. In spite of all the extreme class strife, one of the most interesting tombs in Rome is that of the baker Euracyces. Almost certainly a freedman he build a delightful tomb and is remembered by tourists and scholars while thousands of of "noble" Romans are forgotten.

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    7. I agree that cemeteries can be fascinating. Bisbee has one in which the various lodges have their own areas, so you can visit masons, then elks, etc.

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  2. Ooops - that's IMMORTALITY. Sheesh.

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  3. I've contemplated being freeze dried and turned into compost. (There's a Swedish company that does that, but I'm pretty sure it'd be too expensive.) Of course, I've also contemplated having one of those sproingy joke snakes installed and then donating my body to science much to the hilarity of all... So it's possible my contemplations aren't to be taken entirely seriously. Mostly I don't care what happens to my body once I'm done with it.

    I promised my closest friend that I'd plant a tree for him if he dies before I do. I promised my mother I'd carry her ashes around and leave bits of them in odd places. Nobody else I know seems to have a preference.

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    1. Compost would be great, but you're right, it should be cheap. I really like the "bits in odd places" notion.

      Oh, you reminded me of another: I love the actor who gave his skull to the theater.

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  4. Plant an apple tree over my ashes and have a bite when I'm ripe.

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  5. An extreme ectomorph (in other words, he was real skinny), LoneStarStateDad donated his body to a special research project at Johns Hopkins examining the bodies of people who were at the extremes of body mass. At some point later, the remains were cremated and the ashes returned to EmpireStateMom. She, in turn, had them buried in a local cemetery with a very small stone. There's space there for her ashes when the time comes. I appreciate having that spot to go visit and be with the old man's spirit from time to time when I am back in the place I grew up.

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    1. I don't mean to knock the idea of having a place where you go to remember someone, and I'm sure not calling for banning cemeteries. But I'll remember Mom every time I see something that's a striking red, 'cause she loved the color. And it's entirely possible that I'll never visit either of her graves, whether they have markers or not, simply because they're so far away. But I might. Memorializing is an interesting process.

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  6. There is a company that will, for a reasonable fee, mix you ashes with vinyl and press a hundred records of your favorite music. I think I would like that.

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  7. Nice Blog.. really This is an amazing welcome addition to our family history collection

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