I did today what I often do when I go by one; I visited and pondered a cemetery. Surely cemeteries have been created to be visited, and you should stop in, especially if it is a nice day.
Different cemeteries have different charms. Well-maintained ones are often beautiful. Lush landscaping. Mature trees. Birds. Squirrels. Even a rundown cemetery has the fascination of the wonder of lost stories and forgotten lives.
Although the cemetery I visited today contained the graves of many of the famous, I did not seek them out. I never do. Instead I look at random inscriptions. 1880-1942. 1921-2010. Beloved. Mother. You Will Live in Our Hearts Forever. Somehow this gives me peace except for those like 2004-2008, 1909-1919, which produce a sadness for those who were left behind. In an old cemetery where the tombstones are so weathered that I can only guess at what the inscriptions read, I feel as if the scene is trying to impart some transcendental message, but I never catch it.
I don’t know if my interest in cemeteries existed before I worked in one. Until then my contact with the death industry had been sparse. My grandfather, who lived in the upper flat of our two-story house, died when I was in high school. (He died on his seventieth birthday. His son, my father, lived until 80. Ergo, by my impeccable logic, I get until 90.) Surely there must have been a funeral, but I have no memory of it.
But also when in high school, Mr. U died. Although I had no contact with Mr. U, he had been an important figure in education in my town and had a school named after him. I was among those tapped to be a student representative at a funeral-home ceremony for him. Up until then, I had seen dead people primarily on TV and movie cowboy shows, and these “corpses” always seemed as if they were going to sit up in a moment. But as I entered, there was not only a group of frightening adults (I did not know them, and I was shy; I tried to avoid talking even to parents of friends), but also an open casket with the remains, my lightning-quick mind concluded, of Mr. U. Adults tried to talk to me; I would have found this difficult no matter what, but I kept trying not to look over at the dead guy. And was that makeup?
My first real exposure to a cemetery came in the summer at the end of high school when I had a job in a local cemetery. There I did not look on the dead. Instead, I was the main watering guy. It was a hot, dry season. A portion of the cemetery did not have underground sprinklers; hoses were used to water the grass there. Each morning I would go around turning on spigots that had attached hoses. This took about ninety minutes, and then I made a second round. I turned off the spigot, walked to the end of the hose, moved the sprinkler to an unwatered patch, walked back to the spigot, turned it on, and then repeated this pattern at the next spigot until the end of the work day when I turned off the spigots. This might seem boring and lonely, but it was not to me. I had trouble talking with the adults who worked there, and I found the cemetery a place for peaceful contemplation. The work suited. (Except that the hoses were black, and black stuff got imbedded in the whorls of my fingers. My hands looked dirty, and that bothered me because this was the summer when I was sure that I was going to unbutton a blouse, maybe unbutton many blouses. But, I feared, not if my hands looked grossly dirty. I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. Lava soap was my friend. So was Boraxo. They didn’t really work.)
The cemetery’s full-time employees did the core work. They dug the graves; they lowered the casket after a service; they filled in the hole; they landscaped after the burial. Only once in a while, usually on a weekend when enough of the full-timers were not on call, did I assist. On one Saturday when I was helping, I was waiting for the mourners to leave the grave site so that we could shovel in and level the soil. Then we would be through, and I might have the time to make my baseball game. But two or three mourners lingered. I must have indicated my impatience, and one of the full-time workers quietly but firmly told me to have respect for those still there. That struck me. This physical laborer, who must have seen a comparable scene many times, could see beyond himself to the humanity of those others. His was not just a job to feed his family, but also one to serve those others. I was embarrassed for myself.
On another Saturday, after the family and friends had left, we went to the grave to do our tasks. The casket was suspended over the grave by one of those machines with canvas stretchers. A crank lowered the casket to the bottom of what really was a six-foot hole. Then one of the stretchers was detached from the machine and pulled under the casket and up to the other side. In the normal course, the soil that had been put to the side of the grave was shoveled into the hole, and the ground raked. A few days later, after the soil’s settling, this raw ground would be landscaped. But this time, after the lowering, the stretchers got stuck. The full-timers tried this and that, but the canvas strips were not freed. Finally, the crew chief looked at me, pointed at the hole, and told me to deal with the situation. Either free the canvas or toss the loose end back up so the casket could be raised, and the process started anew. To this fit youngster, seemingly no big deal. But–and it was big but–the grave was only a few inches wider and longer than the casket. I was not really jumping into a six-foot hole; I was really going to leap onto a casket. In an instant, an image stuck in my mind. My feet would crash through the casket, and I would be standing on a dead person. Or I would go through the lid, slip, and be lying face to face with a corpse. And other variations on this theme. Of course, these were false worries. The casket was not a pine box loosely hammered together. It was one of the Cadillacs sold by funeral homes to those who probably could not afford it. That lid could handle a lot more than my 148 pounds. It was going to hold more than that when the grave was filled in. I jumped, quickly freed the stretcher, and clambered out without incident. But those images remained. I had nightmares for days, maybe even weeks, and I won’t be surprised if in writing about this, that I don’t have nightmares again.
A few weeks later I was called to the cemetery office. The manager was there with a tiny, old man. A small box was on the counter. It contained the ashes of the man’s wife. The manager instructed me to carry the container to a specified place in the cemetery where a hole for the box had already been dug. I should lower the container and then help the man fill the hole.
I lifted the container. It was heavy. Very heavy. I stumbled a bit, but then moved on. I had never before carried human ashes, and I wondered how they could weigh so much. The man started to talk about his wife as we shuffled on. I half listened as I did generally with adults and tried to say as little as possible. Although I tried to hide them, he may have seen my struggles with the box and said that it was lined with lead. I wondered why he would have his wife cremated and have the remains in the kind of container meant to prevent decay. He talked more and more about his wife. I could almost touch his love for her. Then he started to talk about her death. It had been a slow, wasting disease. I could tell it had been awful. He said that by the end he barely recognized her. She did not look like the person he had been in love with for over sixty years. He said that he had wanted an open-casket funeral, but . . . Cremation had not always been the plan.
I had learned some stuff that summer. I was a teenage boy and (therefore) a wiseass, but I had been taught that I should respect the grief of others. After the man had tossed a handful of soil on the box, as I was about to shovel in more, I finally said, I guess you are going to miss her very much. He cried.
So, what is the proper response to this grief of others especially when they are relative strangers and you did not know or barely knew the loved one? Silence? Platitudes (“So sorry for your loss”)? I still don’t really know.