Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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My husband, Kevin, and I recently spent an hour hunting for my mother’s grave. It had been three years since we’d made the trip from Maine to New Jersey to visit the cemetery, and we had only vague memories of her grave site’s location. When we arrived, we went by the cemetery office, which was decorated with thick carpets and wood paneling and staffed by older women in suits, heels, and fine jewelry. The woman behind the desk, eyeglasses perched low on her nose, searched through a large notebook labeled “G–I,” then triumphantly announced, “Here it is: Jean Goodman.” She marked a plot on a map with an X and drew a line from office to grave. “It’s easy to find,” she said, “just two rows behind the Ten Commandments.”
We took the map and set out on foot rather than drive the labyrinth of roads crisscrossing the monument-covered landscape. The sky promised rain. Up ahead loomed the enormous marble tablets, like a prop in a Woody Allen film about God. By the time the shadow of the Commandments fell upon us, our sneakers were wet with dew.
Searching the long row for my mother’s headstone was like seeking that particular tree in the forest into which you once carved a heart for somebody you loved. Though we walked back and forth again and again, we couldn’t find it. I strode impatiently over the drenched grass, rattling in my hand two rough stones that we’d brought from Maine, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of leaving stones on the grave to show that we had visited. They were striped rocks: white, gray, and black layers of prehistoric past. I’d chosen them carefully from the various cairns of stones that rest in every corner of our house: on bathroom sinks, bureaus, the wood stove.
“I give up,” I finally told Kevin. “We’ll never find it. Let’s leave the stones at the end of the row and start back before the rain starts.”
Kevin, who’s more patient than I am, wanted to give it one more try. Just then an elderly Hispanic man pulled up in a maintenance truck and asked if he could help. We handed him the map, and he searched intently, his brow wrinkled as he limped up the row. He finally paused, rubbed the grass with his shoe, and revealed metal. “Wait,” he said and dashed off to his truck. A few moments later he returned with a shovel, carefully dug up the grassy soil, and exposed the plaque that marked my mother’s grave:
Oct. 28, 1916 — May 14, 1982
feminist, beloved mother and grandmother
My mother had made all the arrangements for her funeral and burial, but she’d left it to me to compose the inscription on her plaque. When I’d handed a typed sheet of paper to the woman behind the counter at the monument company, she seemed charmed by what I’d written.
“ ‘Feminist,’ ” she said. “Imagine that.”
“Yes,” I said, “she was totally independent.”
“So rare for a woman born in 1916.”
I thought I detected a flash of envy in her eyes, and I realized she was probably the same age as my mother. She stared at the paper as if lost in thought. I wondered what event in her life she was revisiting. Finally she looked up at me and asked, “Will you be buried in the same cemetery?”
I shook my head.
Kevin and I don’t believe in funerals, burials, and gravestones. We plan to be cremated, attending to the commonplace business of dying with the least amount of rigmarole possible. I’ve asked my sons to scatter my ashes in New York City. When my daughter-in-law, an attorney, heard this, she told me she would research the legality of it, but as someone who grew up in a Brooklyn ghetto, I told her just to dump them without permission: considering the amount of debris on a Manhattan street, nobody would notice.
“You’re not debris,” she said.
“I’m not,” I said, “but my body will be after I’ve left it.”
Though my mother wanted to be buried, I believe that scattering her ashes hither and yon might have better suited her disposition. When her spirit departed her body, she was living in a tiny apartment in Newark, New Jersey, a city she had never thought of as home. She loved Manhattan, especially the hustling, noisy expanse of Second Avenue. Depositing her ashes there would have been a fitting return.
I am the last living member of a family of three: my mother, my brother, and myself. (I never knew my father.) My brother was the first to die, killed in Vietnam. The military handled everything, right down to the chilling refrain of taps drifting across endless rows of identical white crosses, symbols of a war that seemed equally endless. When my brother was alive, we’d never discussed death, avoiding any topic, really, that was likely to evoke feelings or involve family history. None of my friends’ families discussed death either, ignoring its inevitability despite life’s reminders. Many of our grandparents had died in the death camps of Europe, so we’d not experienced their funerals. With nothing to guide us, my friends and I must have hoped we would stumble upon the right thing to do when our parents died, perhaps believing it was instinctual. And maybe it is. The Neanderthals, it’s been discovered, buried their dead with flowers. Studies suggest that elephants comfort their dying and caress their heads after they’ve passed. Is there some genetic predisposition in all creatures for mourning? If so, my mother and I got recessive genes. When my brother was killed, my mother’s howls were quickly silenced by an injection of sedative. After his burial, she remained silent and dry-eyed, giving up her beloved cigarettes as penance for the unnatural act of outliving her child. His death was rarely mentioned between us.
During my mother’s funeral, I wandered the funeral parlor aimlessly, leaving my young sons to the care of close friends. I was grateful for the closed coffin and the brevity of the time her body would spend aboveground: it’s Jewish tradition to bury the dead within twenty-four hours. When I’d seen her lifeless body in the hospital, I’d been hardly able to believe it was her. My animated, energetic mother had nothing in common with that stiff, mannequin-like form beneath the white hospital sheet. The vessel that had contained her spirit was as empty as the bottle of wine I later drank with my friends to toast her memory.
Though I think cemeteries deprive the living of needed space, they can sometimes be pleasant, parklike places. In Portland, Maine, historic Evergreen Cemetery is a massive swath of green that terminates at a pond inhabited by fat, contented ducks and geese. Visitors bring stale-bread offerings, and the birds stay there year-round, through snow and freezing weather. I wander Evergreen frequently for exercise, silence, and history. I read the ancient inscriptions, admire the engravings, and muse on the way names like Abigail, Charity, and Mabel go out of style, replaced by others that eventually suffer the same fate.
Evergreen’s moss-laden mausoleums strike me as evidence of large and insecure egos, simultaneously declaring the deceased’s importance and acknowledging his or her fear of being forgotten. The dead, for the most part, do fade into obscurity: headstones are worn away; the last family members and acquaintances die. This fading seems necessary. Just as we must die to make room for the next generation, so must our memories dim. If we remembered every ancestor going back to Adam and Eve, there would be no room in our heads for the living.
Lately I’ve noticed something new at the cemetery: large boxes made of plexiglass that contain photographs — usually of teenagers or young adults — along with trophies, medals, baseballs, school awards, and various other memorabilia, like tiny museums devoted to a single individual. When I pass these transparent enclosures, I feel I’ve been handed a responsibility to join in the family’s grieving process. Perhaps the families who erect these shrines are inviting cemetery visitors to bear witness to the unfairness of losing a loved one so young. The mementos strive to keep memories of the deceased as fresh and immediate as possible. But with the passage of time, memories — no matter how hard we try to retain them — become mere approximations of the people who are gone. After thirty years I need to look at my mother’s photograph to see her face clearly: the crow’s-feet; the plucked eyebrows; the humor in her eyes, and the sorrow behind it.
Lately, when driving on the highway, I’ve passed many white crosses commemorating those who have died in accidents, decorated with blue or pink ribbons that wave in the wind from passing trucks. Sometimes several crosses are clustered at a particular spot, as though it were a kind of Bermuda Triangle where lives are sucked up in a screech of tires, brakes, and horns. These shrines serve as both memorials and cautionary statements. The white crosses remind me of military cemeteries, which I wish could also be viewed by more of us as cautionary statements: this is what happens when we make war — our young vanish in a nightmare dreamed up by those who remain safe behind walls.
A few miles down the road from my house is a railroad track, and the other day, while waiting for the train to pass, I noticed a small white cross nearby. It was draped in fresh flowers, but the death couldn’t have been recent, or I would have read about it. Also the paint on the cross was peeling. How had this particular death occurred? A suicide? A stalled truck? A vehicle that had lost its race with a train? The fresh flowers were evidence of ongoing grief. Whoever had brought them needed to go to a florist, drive to the site, step carefully between the trestles, and scramble up a pebble-laden embankment to leave the roses. This little monument has served its purpose: I can no longer pass the train track without recognizing that somebody lost his or her life there, and caution is required. Thinking of the Jewish tradition, I imagine thousands of little stones surrounding the cross, each representing a visit from a person in a passing car or train.
I live near an old cemetery atop a steep hill, and I climbed up there one morning to examine the slate headstones. Most were no longer readable, their edges worn away and ragged, like the decaying teeth of an ancient giant. There are many such cemeteries scattered throughout Maine. A friend told me about walking some overgrown land he was considering buying and discovering a small family cemetery made impenetrable by thorny masses of wild roses. Worn gravestones lay on their sides, shrouded by grass and bushes. My friend was dismayed, but I found it a lovely thought: wild roses embracing the forgotten grave sites, the earth reclaiming everything. I recalled a line from a Carl Sandburg poem: “I am the grass; I cover all.”
My husband is a scientist, and four years ago I accompanied him to an environmental conference in Japan. Our hosts were eager to show us the Japan most tourists never see, and we spent a couple of days on a bus, visiting out-of-the-way places. Our last stop was a sulfurous location whose name translates loosely as Wounded Rock. The almost-viscous odor swirled around us. Our eyes watered; our throats stung. I thought of the fire-and-brimstone hell conjured by old-time preachers.
But once we’d climbed over the slope, we forgot about the stench. We were looking out upon thousands of hand-carved statues called jizo, deities who pray for travelers. Each wore a decaying red bib and head scarf sewn by local women to symbolize impermanence. Wounded Rock has long been a destination for Japanese spiritual pilgrims. Many died traveling there on foot over the centuries, leaving their families back home uncertain whether to issue prayers for the dead. Local craftsmen carved a jizo for each dead pilgrim, so that he or she might be eternally prayed for.
Though there were no remains at Wounded Rock, it felt like a burial ground. I wandered slowly among the statues, which comforted me with their apparent message that the death we all travel to meet is not so frightening.
That day at Wounded Rock was also the anniversary of my mother’s death. Our hosts had told us that visitors to the site place stones beside the jizo to remember their own dead. Stunned by the similarity to the Jewish ritual and by the serendipity of our being there on that particular date, I honored my mother by placing a stone at the feet of a small jizo whose hands were raised in prayer and eyes were closed in meditation.
I can’t picture myself dying. The actual process — with all its uncertainty about when, where, and how — is too much to contemplate. I can, however, imagine the moment after death: a quiet state, perhaps close to what we sometimes achieve during meditation; the absence of fear, worry, hate, and anger. Or maybe there is only emptiness. As an atheist, I find it both disquieting and comforting to think that there is nothing else after the body has ceased to function. But Einstein proved that energy never vanishes, so there is also the possibility of my energy circling the places I loved and the lives of my children and grandchildren.
I collect seashells, old turtle shells, fossils, sand dollars, pieces of wood, bleached bones — the castoff remains of once-living things. They remind me that dying is universal, the most ancient certainty, both revered and feared. Even stars die, blasting their light across the dark universe. Each of us follows in the footsteps of countless others who have gone before. Death is the final equalizer among us, and between humans and other species. I don’t dwell on my own demise, but I know I’m past the midpoint of my days. My life is a vessel steadily emptying. I wonder what absolute stillness will be like.
As my mother did, I’ve made arrangements for what will happen to my body after death. Unlike her, I’ll have no headstone, only the stones I have brought back to our house from my travels. I need no more monument than the slice of lava from Herculaneum in Italy; the magically flat stone from Kyoto, Japan; the vivid red rock from New Mexico. I’m humbled to have possessed them for a brief span of their long existence. I can imagine my sons handling their smooth curves and worn edges as they think of me after I’m dead, until finally they, too, are gone, and only the stones remain.
In her search for comfort following her mother’s death, Michelle Cacho-Negrete might find solace in the words Albert Einstein wrote when he learned that Michele Besso, his closest friend for more than fifty years, had died. Einstein wrote to Besso’s sister and son: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
I enjoyed your April Fools’ interview with Leslie Gray. What a good joke: to present as an expert on relating to nature a woman of vague Native American origin who was born in Boston and raised in Los Angeles and apparently has never spent any significant amount of time in the outdoors. You really had me going there for a few pages.
You made up for it with the last lines from “Stones,” by Michelle Cacho-Negrete: “I’ll have no headstone, only the stones I have brought back to our house from my travels. . . . I’m humbled to have possessed them for a brief span of their long existence.” Now, that’s spirituality you can hold in your hands, outdoors, without being someone’s “client.”