gravestones and junk mail

We may think that when we die we will sink into obscurity, lost forever but in the hearts and minds of those who loved (or despised) us.

image by Leonard John Matthews via flickr

These days many end up with their ashes scattered or their bodies made into coral reefs; gone are the days of visits to the cemetery to visit with loved ones. I don’t even remember where some of my relatives are buried, my stepmother somewhere in western Mass, one grandmother somewhere near Syracuse, I think, the other I’m really not sure.

I started this post to tell a funny tale, and I will get to that, but now I’ve started thinking about cemeteries, so allow me a pause. I’ve buried both parents but don’t visit their graves, or haven’t, although I think of it at times. One is six or seven hours away, the other just one or two, but I don’t think of them being there at all, so the urge to visit their graves stems more from of a sense of obligation, doing the right thing, than from of any emotional feeling that I will be closer to them if I do. I have pictures of my mother’s grave, with flowers placed over her name. What do you do with pictures like that?

I googled my father the other day and came across a picture of his gravestone. It’s on some website called findagrave and it was created by someone named “oh look, a chicken!” (I kid you not). There are buttons to add photos of the person and one to leave flowers and a note (virtually, of course) which asks you to select from several pages of icons which include flowers, fun flowers (not sure what makes them fun), animals, and miscellaneous which has a pinwheel, a peace sign, a cigar or a pack of cigarettes, and a can of beer. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to honor their dead with these, but who am I do talk about honoring the dead, anyway… In order to choose any of these you have to be a member, and I’m not, despite the fact that they say it’s fast easy and completely free.

I don’t mean to make fun of the site, not at all, for I’ll readily admit that it gave me a certain comfort to know my father’s grave is documented, somewhere, since he has been gone a few years now and few probably think of him as often as I do. Indeed when I looked at the site and clicked on “success stories” I found countless stories of how people have found those lost to them, really heartfelt, convoluted and almost unbelievable journeys that seem right out of a Tom Hanks movie but which I know are really of true people with beating hearts.

What actually prompted me to write this post, though, was a catalogue that came in the mail today. Its products include t-shirts with logos such as “Kill ’em with Kindness” with an illustration of the Dalai Lama, “This is no Santa” with one of Karl Marx, quotes like “Well behaved women seldom make history” (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich) and “Knowledge speaks but wisdom listens” (Hendrix). Oh, and don’t forget the one with an image of four native american men that says “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” appropriate, I guess, since I received it the day after Columbus Day.

Always curious to see how I got into the demographic that puts me on certain mailing lists (which can be a bit depressing when you pass forty, etc. and instead of cute miniskirts they try to sell you arch supports, but anyway), I looked at the label. (Secret: sometimes I purposefully misspell my name or make mine a hybrid of mine and my cat’s so I can target my own marketing.) It was addressed to my mother, who died several years ago and never lived at this address at all. I can’t quite imagine her buying a bumper sticker that says “Read a Fucking Book” although she did love to read, or those clever logos of “tolerance” and “coexist” that include symbols for all religions along with a peace sign, even though she was a very tolerant, kind soul.

Somehow I can picture her at her kitchen table, half-listening to CNN as she sits with straight back and a tiny bowl of exactly five crisp potato chips, turning the pages of the catalogue with such care that you might think it were made of ancient papyrus, smoothing out the pages with soft fingers and then settling in to study it, glasses slid down onto the tip of her nose, just above her pinked lips. She would be wearing some pretty little dress with elastic at the top, tucked down over her shoulders not enough to make her look cheap but enough to show the lovely shape of her shoulders and delicate neck. She would chuckle at the slogans and say, “Look at this one, honey.”

Oh, my mother would have loved this catalogue. She might have also enjoyed the other mail that arrives addressed to her—offers saying “this is your last chance!” or “You’ve won!”,  colorful brochures offering  her what would surely be her “trip of a lifetime!” She would have sent small donations to build houses for the poor in Haiti or support women’s rights. She would have thought that every item sent was sent precisely with her in mind, and as such would have taken each one very seriously. This is (or was), after all, a woman who wrote several drafts of each email, often printing them out and piling them up for us to find (and have to sift through) after she was gone, wondering what the final edit looked like.

Maybe we should all be buried with things that we loved, sort of like the burning house meme where it is things, beloved things that might seem inconsequential to others but which somehow define us, that are gathered around when we escape, be it from a burning house or from life itself. That stone on his grave in the little jpeg seems so cold and has nothing of my father but his name, the ground holy and hallowed, I know, or think I do, yet containing nothing of the life which I remember. Maybe instead of flowers on that website they should ask for jokes, or silly stories, pictures of our expressions when we are giddy or mad, favorite books or biggest mess-ups. Those are the things that make us who we are.

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