Yesterday morning, without any preliminaries, my wife suddenly asked me if I had thought about “final plans,” that is, how and where would I want to be buried? I don’t know where this came from. Obviously, the pandemic has made mortality more real and imminent to all of us. It’s also possible that her question was spurred by the fact that tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday when, traditionally, it is decided whether or not you will be inscribed for another year in The Book Of Life.
Whatever prompted her question, here’s how the conversation went:
She: So, do you want to be buried? Would you rather be cremated? Where would you like to be buried? Do you want a gravestone? If so, what would you like your epitaph to read? Or would you just like to donate your body to science?
Me: I don’t know. I’m already signed up to be an organ donor. On the other hand I’ve always like the idea of a “green burial”, where you are simply laid to rest, unembalmed, wrapped in a cloth shroud, placed in a pine box and lowered into the ground to let the rain and the worms do the rest. But something in me still recoils at the idea of being placed in a cold, dark hole. So maybe you could place me on a raised platform open to the sky, as certain Native American tribes are said to have done with their dead, and let wild scavengers take care of me. Or you could spread my ashes in the garden, preferably among the potatoes or the raspberry vines.
She: Okay, but what about a marker?
Me: A marker? Well, I’ve always liked Thoreau’s grave in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It’s a small unpretentious headstone that simply says “HENRY.” I’ve always been moved by its simplicity and humility, implying that he saw himself for all eternity primarily as the younger brother in his family – in contrast, say, to Emerson’s tall imposing patriarchal monument nearby.
As to where I’d like to be buried, gee, that’s a tough one. I don’t have a “family plot.” My maternal grandparents are buried in a cemetery in New Jersey, far from their homelands of Hungary and Slovenia. My parents, who moved to the Cape when my father retired, are buried in the Pine Grove Cemetery in Brewster, far from their hometowns in New Jersey and New York. And though I’ve now lived more than half my life on Cape Cod, I don’t feel I belong to the Cape, not the way people used to speak of “belonging” to a place. But not belonging to any one place is probably the rule for most of us now.
And you? Where would you like to be buried?
She: I don’t think it matters to me. If I had a grave here, who would come visit it? I don’t have any children or any blood ties here. My family is scattered all over the East Coast. I’m not famous. No one is going to come looking for my grave. If anything I’ll leave my mark in the little things I’ve done in my life, things I’ve given to people or helped them with. That’s my legacy, and knowing it while I’m alive is enough. There will be little left of me when I’m gone, and that will soon be forgotten.
Me: Well said, but I think you sell yourself short. I think you’ll be remembered for many things: for your love of poetry, or your capacity for delight, or your willingness to take risks (none more so than the risk you took in throwing in your life with mine). But in the end, I think we are each of us most remembered by the stories people will tell of us.
She: Well then, I guess we’d better get busy making some new stories.
Me: That sounds like a good plan.