Though I was never one for cemeteries and am not in the habit of visiting the graves of family or friends, I will consent to tour the graves of those long gone, whose tombstones are abraded and lichen-covered. There is a forlorn, lonesome quality to these graves so neglected through time. If the deceased in these places were promised perpetual care, clearly the care has fallen somewhat short of perpetuity.
Once on a wintry November day we toured Concord cemetery and pausedonly briefly, for it was uncomfortably coldbefore the stones marking the graves of Alcott, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. It was a tourist’s experience, merely taking note of the historically departed. There was no grief to confront, nor any sense of sadness.
Deep in late November’s grip the grounds looked like an unkempt stage for a dark production of Our Town, something intentionally designed to evoke the desolations of death. I remember trees dead in winter bearing gnarled and twisted limbs as we walked through the cemetery.
But that is my impression also of cemeteries for the more recently departed, even when snuggled up in the glowing warmth of spring. I do not like cemeteries.
This comes to mind because recently I visited the graves of my parents for the first time since their deaths. The cemetery was empty of anyone living, except for me and a noisy flock of grazing Canada geese.
It was not deliberate, my graveside visit. I had business nearby and afterward, on the spur, decided to see if their markers were inscribed properly as my parents had wanted. The living do have obligations to the dead, yet beyond that specific duty I see little reason ever to return to their graves, either to pay homage or to assuage grief.
Among the deceased I knew, I know where hardly any of them are buried. I don’t know where my best high school friend lies, except somewhere in southern Missouri, and I’m the one who conducted his funeral. He asked me to do it for him some little while before he died and, best friend though he was through the years, it surely was the meanest thing he ever did to me. I have but vague recollections of where my grandparents are buried.
That will not be the case with my gravesite. There are a series of daydreams I indulge about my own death; one entails the vision of periodic visitors standing about my grave. I know them all: my children, my widow, all regularly gathering to speak of me in tones of loving remembrance, reverently hushed, but mostly wishing I was still around to haul the trash to the street on Thursdays. Or something. And because I am a forgiving sort, the assembly includes even the parishioner I once regarded, fondly, as the Wicked Witch of the West.
We bury the remains of our past, our loves and friends, our family, and the regrets. But it seems, at least to me, that we honor them best largely in ways other than graveside visitations. I have lived long enough now to know the weight of the dead who press on my mind. I think of them, say prayers for them sometimes, but I do not seek their graves, as neither mourner nor tourist. And I don’t know why anyone would do so with mine, but fantasies by definition are sometimes fantastical.
So I have decided I don’t care to be buried. Of course I won’t be around to care about it one way or the other, but if I do get any say, cremation is fine. It’s just as well, I think, to place my “cremains” in a tasteful urn centered atop the mantle, nestled among all the other knickknacks that never get dusted. That’s as good as being buried in an $8,000 plot no one will ever visit. A small tag on the urn with my name would do nicely, and perhaps a sentiment: “The Trash Goes Out Thursdays.”
As she lay dying, St. Augustine’s mother said it for me: “You may lay my body anywhere; never mind about that. All I ask is that you remember me at the altar of the Lord.”
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the University of Mary Christian Leadership Center. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.