Obituaries, Cemeteries, and Perpetual Care

17 Mar

Sample Obituary

When did I go from not reading the obituaries to reading them?  I can’t put my finger on it, because the fact that I do so is embarrassing to me.  Early on in my life the people in the obituaries were mostly from my grandparents’ WWI generation.  I must have at least have glanced at the ages to know that.  However, I definitely considered them to be my parents’ province and not mine.  My father would say to my mother, “So and so has died.”  The answer would be something like: “But I just saw him last Sunday!”  And then whoever it was would fade from my mind.

Today I opened the Ithaca Journal and turned right to the obituary page.  I get most of my news from the NY Times and  The local newspaper is for the obituaries and Amy Dickinson’s advice column.  At swimming this morning at Lansing High School, Marge told me there had been a car accident on Sunday in Newfield and that three people had died in a pond.  Naturally, because of my obsessive nature, when I arrived at my mother’s I immediately looked at the obituaries.  The names were different in both write-ups, which would have made it hard to match them up, but for the fact that the man’s good-looking, hirsute face appeared in both pictures and they had both been in a Sunday car accident.

Right away I started inventing stories for them–he was the love of her life,  she had been married and had children, but she hadn’t known true love until she met him.  He took her hunting for their first date and that was it for her, etc.  That’s what the imaginative half of me does.  The other half, the voice of reason, says, “They were in their forties, Kathy.  And you are fifty-eight.  Count yourself lucky.”

In my father’s hometown of Monticello, NY, there was a woman, we’ll call her Gladys, who went to all the funerals in town, even the funerals of people she didn’t know.  She became the laughing stock of the community.  They thought she was weird.  I often worry about becoming a mental Gladys, daily taking stock of those who have passed on, but another part of me says that this is part of what makes me human–that it is merely human to separate the living from the dead and to note the comings and goings.

But then I think again and remember that I have always been fascinated by graveyards.  I suspect there is some kind of connection between my early fascination with graveyards and my more recent obsession with obituaries, in that cemeteries are an even more emphatic attempt to perpetuate the memories of loved ones.  When I was in high school, my girlfriend Jeanne and I had a series of rituals.  One of them involved putting a rose on the gravestone of a baby girl named Jody Jenkins Snyder who was born on May 1, 1952 and died on May 3, 1952, the year before we were born.  The graveyard seemed to hang over the high school, making it easy to skip out of English and sit there, or to stop there on the way downtown from where we lived in the Northeast part of Ithaca .  We would go to the local florist shop and buy a rose, then meander through Cayuga Heights to the cemetery, where we  would carefully lay the rose on her lamb-decorated tombstone.  I would wonder who her parents were and whether or not they had had other children.  Did they still think about her?

Returning today, I mark the fact that the lamb-covered gravestone is all the way at the north edge of the graveyard, making it seem like an afterthought, but then I see a gravestone for a WWI soldier named Jenkins and realize that she is merely at the edge of a family plot.  I had a crush on a guy named Artie Jenkins when I was in junior high.  I had my first slow dance with him in the gymnasium at St. Paul’s Methodist Church and I wonder if it could be the same family.  He died young–I seem to remember that it was a drug-related death.

Looking back, it’s hard to say why a gravestone would attract the attention of two teenagers.  I think perhaps it had something to do with the fact that we felt marginalized and unnoticed, and the grave appeared to us to be that way too.  We were also sentimental and inclined to a melancholy view of life.  Perhaps we realized that the parents must have felt alone in their grief, although the words “our baby” at the top of the stone do indicate that at least they had each other in their sorrow.

I always looked at it as a Catholic graveyard, but today I am aware that quite a few of the headstones have pebbles on them and that one section is even marked out as belonging to Temple Bethel.  In fact, not only are the religious traditions mixed here–as indicated by a large gravestone next to the Jenkins-Snyder baby that has a picture of Christ etched in it, but there are obvious differences in the amount of money the mourners had to memorialized their loved ones.  This is a graveyard for all religions and all classes.

This is probably a self-centered thought, but I do wonder if people will mark my passing with the assiduousness with which I mark even strangers’ deaths.  I think it is all pretty chancy.  Who, after all, would have thought that the grave of a little girl would have been noticed by two teenagers?  But the couple must have wanted some kind of attention to be brought to their daughter’s death.  Else why mark it in such a distinctive way with a lamb?  The writers of the obituaries of those killed in Sunday’s crash wanted some attention for their losses and the sharing of grief does entitle the dead one to some kind of perpetual notice.

The only way to guarantee that someone will observe your death in the passing years is to do what my friend Denise’s relative did and leave money in your will for your relatives to hold a picnic at your grave every year.  However, it has been more than just a Confucian ritual. [ Edit from Denise on correctness of last comment:” Just about, although the graveside ritual is a “picnic” for the deceased ancestor. After venerating our ancestor, the living leave and go eat at a restaurant.”]   My nieces seem to have developed a taste for Thai food, but they would have to drive an hour to Ottawa after venerating me, to do that. [ Another emendation  from Denise: ” Also, in our case the money dividend increased substantially because it was invested in stock that did very well. Most people follow this Confucian ritual because it’s socially embedded and rigidly enforced with global Chinese. So, your best bet would be to be reincarnated as a Chinese person.”] My mother has told me that it used to be the habit in Indiana for families to have picnics at the local cemeteries on Memorial or what they used to call Decoration Day and that her family participated. But times have changed and I will have to count on the younger generation, despite the lack of current custom.   Gwynne, my oldest niece, likes to visit my father’s grave, so maybe she will do the same thing for me.  Of course, I have considered cremation and having my ashes strewn at Bob’s Lake, which would force her to drive up to the cottage.  That leaves me with a happy thought.

4 Responses to “Obituaries, Cemeteries, and Perpetual Care”

  1. claireaperez March 17, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    I enjoyed reading this blog…I can relate to all of it. In fact, my 8th grade English teacher made us go to a cemetery and do a wax paper replica (wax paper over stone, charcoal pencil in hand, rub to replicate) of a gravestone from the turn of the last century. I used to go to cemeteries to visit but about 5 years ago I realized I’d be spending enough time in one eventually so i have decreased my visits…LOL.

    • What you did with the rubbing is one of the things that genealogists do. I had a girlfriend that had all the supplies for genealogy. Most my work involved searching through the census tables at the Mormon church in Mpls. I think I did one rubbing down in Iowa. You’re right that spending too much time in cemeteries can be a mistake.

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