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The strange experience is the real reason for writing all this down. But the background must come first.
It is a provoking problem—what to do with one’s body, mine being the immediate one that concerns me, after death. At 70 it is high time to settle on the matter before a sudden unexpected demise would blanket my children with the trouble and worry. Though I do not lean toward being maudlin or macabre, I have thought about this for years, never getting beyond knowing that I want to be cremated. Recent times have complicated this mode of disposal by telling us it is not ‘green;’ however, the greenest green burial—being plunked spiffy and fresh six feet under in some unknown dirt—does not appeal. So, though my political and spiritual thoughts are sensibly green, my theme of moderation in everything supports my decision to go with cremation nonetheless.
Then comes the need to figure out what to do with my ashes. I was never quite comfortable with the thought of being flung about somewhere, partly because I have really liked being able to visit my parents’ and grandparents’ graves, some on back to the American Revolution. Yet if everyone wanted this the earth would soon run out of room. Luckily, they don’t. Partly, too, as I reflect, is my love of being grounded whether it is a feeling for myself, or the plants I place in the ground, or my solidly grounded home in which I nest.
This decision, then, leads quite obviously to the dilemma of where to have my ashes buried. My father’s ashes are buried in Pennsylvania, my mother’s in Florida, the two never got along and I don’t want to be any part of their apartness. Now in my second marriage, placing my ashes with the father of my children were he to want to be buried somewhere other than his preferred compost pile isn’t an option. My now husband wants to be at his fishing camp which is not for me for a number of reasons, especially that the land is his and will go to his children.
This husband, clear-headed as he is, lifted me out of my cloud of indecision by pointing out that there are good reasons to be buried in the town where one’s children grew up. That did it. So, I began to shop for burial plots during our unseasonably warm autumn as the season crept into what was supposed to be winter.
Looking for one’s future grave site at the cusp of winter should have been a fitting time—winter signifying resting, sleeping, and dying. The plants sleep to prepare for their next season. However, this year Spring, or more rightly a False Spring came before winter. Never have I seen daffodils blooming the second week of December, or the mume tree, the spirea, wild violets and dandelions, a calendula. The alchemy of the seasons wasn’t right and the effect was disconcerting. It created a surreal mood that perhaps added to the experience I relate below.
There is a lot to learn about cemeteries and rules, illegal dog-walking in them, illegal flower planting on plots, and much more; that need not be part of this story. Suffice it to say I visited three cemeteries, two with my husband, and one with a friend. The cemetery I picked was one I have driven by probably thousands of times over the 40 years I have been in the area. It always seemed depressing– close to the highway and fairly devoid of trees.
Now the interesting thing is that I have learned to like it. The only plots left (I wanted two) that were beside a tree (albeit a small one) were down near this very highway, so, there they are in view every time I drive by. I can see them through the trees in the grassy strip buffering the cemetery from the road. I can’t decide if the feeling I get as I am cruising by on a shopping trip or other not-too-serious errand is odd or comforting. Perhaps, it is both– these plots– my extension, my place when I no longer breathe.
Uncanny, how these things all came together in the same few months. My buying of these two plots happened just weeks after I came into possession of the ashes of a young man the age of my own children. We had welcomed him into our family as one of us many years before since his own family was ragged and harsh. We loved him. We nursed him as he died an untimely death. Thus being family to us, my children and I decided to bury his ashes in one of the new plots. I ordered a stone for the spot with an engraving to honor him. Since it would be a month or so until it was ready and all my children would be in town for the holidays, we decided to inter his ashes two days before Christmas when we were all together. The cemetery rules, refreshingly, allow people to bury ashes themselves as long as the spot is officially marked and recorded.
The day was classic for a burying. Gray, but not too cold, the sky spitting and finally gently weeping drops of rain, we found ourselves shovels in hand and a box of ashes at the newly bought plots. One son, nicely dressed as he came from his nearby office, held a black umbrella. The rest of us, in blue jeans, kept glancing at the sky as though to will the drops to stop. They didn’t. We quickly saw that the plot had not been marked as it was supposed to have been so I walked to nearly the opposite corner of the large cemetery where we had seen some workers to ask their advice.
My strange experience occurred on this walk. After I got the instructions from the workers I started back down the slight slope. The children and one spouse stood wrapped by the gray dripping sky under the large black umbrella at the edge of my burial plots, a distance of about a block. I could tell they were quietly talking. Suddenly, I was in one of those moments when you feel your soul starting to spiral out of your body and enter into another place, somewhere else in some vast void. The spirit of the future found me and caught me up in its gossamer—I had left the earth– and it whispered to me—you are fortunate, you are seeing right now how it will be when your ashes are being buried. A solid place. Your sweet children. Love and tenderness… A few more steps and the rain drops tugged me back to earth, to then. There was more, a well-beingness and feeling I cannot describe.
I joined my family. We read a poem. We told stories about our loved one. We gently put the box in the hole my children had dug. One by one we picked up a bit of wet earth and tossed it on the box. Slowly we shoveled the soil back covering the box and filling the hole. I was different, settled. How am I different? I cannot tell you because I do not know the words that could explain it. I know I feel secure. And, I can tell you that the peace is real.