Consider this my living will. When I die, I want my body to be cremated and my ashes scattered over the Caymanian Trench, a 25,000-foot crevasse carved between Grand Cayman and her sister islands in the Caribbean Sea. The remaining question is: do I want a permanent marker in a cemetery somewhere on land, a place for someone to visit?
“Of course you do,” said my friend Angee, almost indignant at the thought of not having a grave to visit (presuming that since I am older than her, I will pass first and therefore she will need somewhere to mourn me.)
“Going to the cemetery and placing flowers on the graves of my grandmother and grandfather is important,” she continued. “I sit by their headstones and talk with them, let them know how much I love them, how much I miss them. Why wouldn’t you want a headstone?”
I, in my most Baptist self-righteousness to her Catholic incredulity, replied, “I believe that my grandmother and mother did not die, but their souls are in heaven. Yes, their bodies are underground, but their spirits are free. I don’t need a place to go. I can talk to them anytime! Therefore, once I’m dead you can talk to me whenever you want.”
Based on the number of documented and undocumented cemeteries in our country (possibly a half million), I may be in the minority on this subject. In fact, there can be over 100 cemeteries in one county! We certainly want a place to commemorate our dead.
A brief glimpse into the history of burials shows that in ancient Europe, we laid our dead to rest in hasty graves with maybe a cross hammered into the ground as a marker. More callous, in times of plague, bodies were dumped into mass unmarked graves to not only bury the diseased but the disease itself. However, as communities settled and grew, the increasing number of graves developed into family burial or church plots, eventually expanding into the larger graveyards.
In the more prosperous 19th century, we took a page from the Egyptians. We not only preserved the dead through embalming, we celebrated their lives (and deaths) in monument. Headstones became creative sculptures and we built grand mausoleums. Cemeteries were designed as parks with walking paths and fountains. They served a dual function – a gathering place for both the dead and the living.
The embattled 19th century also gave us national cemeteries to recognize the men and women who gave their lives for our country. There is no more mournful sound than a single trumpet playing “Taps” as it echoes over the rows and rows of white marble crosses.
Beyond that patriotic final recognition, the grandiosity of death has since been lost. Cemeteries today have become an industry, the creativity all but sucked out. Acres and acres of land are used to lay our family and friends side by side, or in the case of mass mausoleums, stacked high and wide. Headstones now lay flat to the earth so lawn mowers can conveniently cut grass. Older places still allow upright markers with laser etching, but you must pay dearly for the extra effort to maintain the lawn. In my opinion, modern cemeteries are expansive repositories for the inconveniently dead.
Oh, death still fascinates us. Watch what happens when we stumble upon an unmarked grave from times past! We research and even dowse to discover the inhabitants for fear their family counted them as lost. We have a need to document as well as to be documented in life and in death. A paper certificate saying you’re dead simply won’t do. Today, we want a granite marker on an eight by eight plot to announce to the world that we once lived.
What’s wrong with this, you ask? Space. Eventually, our planet will become one giant cemetery because our egos want a final resting place to call our own. Of course, I’m exaggerating. Not everyone wants a burial plot, not all cultures require the use of land in this way. For instance, Hindus and Buddhists believe in cremation. Parsees take the dead to a mountain for vultures to consume. But in the West, land is a precious resource that is gradually being plotted out by one-time users who don’t and won’t enjoy it.
Some cemeteries, in an effort to conserve and re-use land, have begun to allow burials overtop current grave sites. Imagine Aunt Martha’s bones sharing her space with a stranger! Relax. Those cemeteries claim they’re only reusing sites that are not visited or are of people who are long forgotten. In consolation, they do offer families the option of removing the family member’s headstone as a keepsake. It is extraordinary the lengths people go through to hold onto the memory of our dearly departed.
I confess that for sixteen years I carried my mother’s ashes with me to wherever I moved even though she had a plot with a headstone near my grandmother’s grave. This past year we finally placed her ashes in our family’s tiny country cemetery. To my mind, we laid her to rest, literally and symbolically. When the first clods of dirt covered her tiny maple box, I believe I finally was able to let her go.
I also confess to a sense of comfort and peace when I’m in an older cemetery with creaking cedar trees. I love to wander through the park cemeteries, marveling at the Italianate work and the beautifully worded sentimental inscriptions. It is this space I appreciate. And while I have no problem tramping over the graves, I do speak in a hushed tone in reverence to those who might still be with us in spirit.
As for a headstone for me? No thanks. I’d like to dedicate that space to a tree or a flower garden. So, when you think of me when I’m gone, please consider me dust in the wind, mud in the water and a spirit whispering in your ear.