Common Wisdom: Names in the Grass

My youngest cousin is dead of cardiac arrest. Honoring her wishes, against his own, her husband will have her cremated.

For years I thought cremation was, literally, the way to go. I was haunted by the trauma of a wake for my godmother’s husband when I was a child. The visual shock of the open casket coupled with the nasal assault by too many flowers caused instant revulsion. To this day I never look at the deceased, wanting to remember them as they were, not cosmetically altered as was poor Uncle Jim.

By the time my mother died, however, I had abandoned the option of cremation. I changed my mind after seeing an horrific scene in a foreign film. A coffin was shoved onto tracks leading to a yawning oven, flames leaping toward its consumption. Whatever the actual process, I knew when she died I could not incinerate my mother.

There is also the problem of absence when the body is missing at a requiem Mass. The fashion increases for bodiless memorials. Instead of the departed in a coffin in the aisle, one sees only floral arrangements with perhaps a theme, as at a musician’s Mass where flowers were fashioned into notes and clefts. It seemed a slight. The body, after all, houses the spirit both upper and lower case. It deserves to be there for final respect.

So I buried my mother in a beautiful cemetery nearby. When I visit, the perception of closeness is palpable. Had her body been reduced to an urn, or her ashes cast out to sea, there would be no physical proximity, no assurance that beneath the gravestone lies her body, which carried me in its womb. The pretty marble plaque in the grassy hill tells her name and dates, the special nickname given by her grandchildren, and a simple statement of mutual belief in everlasting life.

Until my mother died I had no exposure to cemeteries. I was not with him when my father died, neither was I in the country when he was buried, a continuing source of regret. Each time the taxi hurtles past those thousand markers, so aptly called gardens of stone, en route from JFK to Manhattan, I ache to think he lies there alone, three thousand miles from me and the wife he loved. I lost my father in the larger sense of the word. Not so my mother. She has her place, and I have a focus.

After five years it still hurts to pass her apartment. A trunk of her clothes remains unsorted, mute witness to my vulnerability. Yet visiting her grave evokes an entirely different response. I am sad, but not distressed. There is a consoling sense of closure.

The cemetery society is like no other. Paradoxically, it is alive with activity. Singly, or in groups, people gather at the site of their departed. Some take lawn chairs. Others trim grass impinging on plaques, or scrub and buff them to restore luster. Poinsettias dot the landscape at Christmas, always there are flowers and helium balloons imprinted with expressions of love. At first I found this scene bizarre. I soon understood that these little attentions testify to the faithfulness of the living to a bond that death cannot sever. For each of us there is a sense of mission, of continued care. The loved one beneath our feet is neither abandoned nor forgotten.

Then there is the matter of the company she keeps. My mother’s neighbors are a varied lot, in age and ethnicity. Up the hill from her is the nineteen-year-old boy beaten by thugs and left to die the very week of my mother’s death. Here and there, arresting pictures on gravestones of happier days, the girl in a prom dress, a boy in tuxedo. Cemetery residents who never met in life, destined to lie side by side forever in death.

Couples are the exception. The departed spouse is duly listed, dates complete. The other’s birth is recorded but awaits, after a disconcerting dash, the date of death. That the bereaved can read his or her own tombstone is a level of efficiency I do not aspire to achieve.

Pope John Paul II described us as having a culture of death. I suggest we have an allergy to it, indulging, on a massive scale, a kind of avoidance therapy. The great surprise is that standing at my mother’s grave gives me an accommodation with death I previously lacked. Cemeteries are commonly shunned by the living who feel, after burying their dead, that nothing is gained by a return. This is a mistake. Through God’s grace, beyond our comprehension, visiting the dead offers much to the living. There comes a transcendence of sorrow and, inexplicably, a feeling of peace. I would have thought a cemetery the very last place to find it.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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