Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hedgerow Mazes and Other Burial Traditions

I guess I need to start to this off by saying that I know my family is odd. Well, maybe odd doesn’t quite cover the real scope of the family tale I’m about to unwind here because this is a large story and odd is a small word. I’m not saying we’re not odd. We are (odd). I’m not exaggerating when I say this tale is big. It is (big). I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when I tell this story. I’ve seen their eyes go wide. I’ve seen listeners try to suppress facial tics. This is a big story and odd is (as I have said) a small word. I need a bigger word that still says ODD but in boldface with unexpressed but inherent exclamation marks.
Since I have not yet found a word that does these things adequately I’ll just ask you to remember (as you read on- wide eyed and slapping at the facial tic in your right cheek) that I told you at the beginning: I know we’re odd. I know this is an odd story. It might be odder still that we find this story hilarious but I don’t know about that coz I can’t see around the hilariousness of it to give an objective evaluation.

We start with my mother’s death when I was 28. Not an hilarious topic on the face of it I know but this is where we begin.

As a family we are not cemetery visitors. Well, that’s not exactly true. Most of us like cemeteries and headstones in an academic sense and do visit really old cemeteries and read epitaphs and track flu epidemics and the like but we do not visit the graves of our dearly departed and lay flowers and wreaths. We just don’t. Dead is, well, dead and the connection of the formerly living person to a grave site is pretty much lost on us. Also we don’t have that many dearly departeds actually in graves but I’ll get to that.

When my mother died no one, not her or my father or any one of her eight children, had given any thought to funeral or burial or even what to do on the day she died.

Let me back up.  My mother was hospitalized the summer she was to turn 60 and died two weeks later. She was the light and love of my father’s life. We, her children, took it in shifts to keep our own version of a vigil at her bedside (I say our own version coz it was…well…us). She was much loved, much mourned and after her death that long last day we all picked up our devastated selves and made as if to leave when we were stopped in our tracks by the hospital’s question of: “What did we want done with the body?”  Honestly not ONE of us had given it ANY thought. She was clearly done with it (the body) and we sort of thought that they (the hospital) just took care of that stuff.

To our somewhat belated credit my sister Ella and I did recover fairly quickly and called a priest my dad worked with and he set things in motion with a funeral home and even made an appointment for my dad to “make the arrangements”.

At the funeral home the next day with Ella and my ownself sort of running interference for my dad he arranged for cremation and held firm to his desire to have no wake, no viewing. no funeral and only a memorial service at the church school where he taught. Done and done. Home free- we thought. Then the funeral director (in a de ja vu moment for us) said: “…and what would like done with the remains?”

“Can’t you keep it?” replied my father.

I am here to tell you that the look on this poor man’s face was priceless as he tried to simultaneously process my dad’s response and explain that “no” he could not keep the remains of this obviously distraught and bereaved man's much beloved wife on shelf in the back. At this point Ella and I jumped in and assured all concerned that we would handle this part and that no one was to worry and would the funeral director please contact one of us in due course. We had no idea what we were going to do but we were going to do it come what may.

Several weeks later, after several phone calls and messages from the crematorium arm of the funeral home Ella took herself off to “COLLECT THE ASHES”. We had tried to do some research but were still a bit unclear as to what to expect and she was more than a little anxious at the prospect of picking up a box of mom.

This is where (for us anyway) the whole thing starts to get kind of hilarious. Here we are, in our twenties, with the ashes of our recently deceased mother in the trunk of the car and absolutely no where to go with them. Dad wanted nothing to do with it. We had said we’d take care of it and he left it there- with us. We didn’t want to bury them in the back yard to be dug up at some future random construction project and we were a bit freaked at the prospect of being caught scattering ashes at the botanical gardens so we kept mom in the trunk while we thought. (Come on! In spite of the facial tic you’re laughing a little, right?).

Then we hit on it. Well, Ella did (she’s a resourceful sort). We would find out where our grandfather (our mother’s father) was buried and we would plant a “memorial bush” at his head stone under which we would deposit mom. Easy peasy! Sacred ground with no chance of disturbance. The fact that we had no idea where the man was buried and that the whole plan was not really strictly “legal” was small potatoes compared to the distance we had already traveled and we really couldn’t keep mom in the trunk of the car forever.

After a few phone calls to the wrong cemeteries we located the correct one and the grave site and, one fine grave-visiting-type-Sunday, Ella and her long suffering husband (hoping not to draw attention by bringing a crowd) dressed in grave-visiting-type-clothes put a good size bush and a smallish shovel in the trunk with mom and headed off to the cemetery to plant a bush on a grave that had never been visited in all of it’s long tenure.  Again: easy peasy, right?

The hole was dug (shoulder deep) the container was emptied (no bony chunks- whew!) the bush was planted and escape was effected. Done and done. As far as we know the operation has remained a covert success and we did (for a while) harbor hopes of all eight of us safely ensconced there under our own bushes forming a hedgerow maze but the original bush died (we did check on it a year or so later) so that idea’s a bust.

Since that time we’ve unhappily suffered more deaths in our ranks. My brother Mick died in his late 30s and his ashes remain in my sister Lynn’s closet. They live(d) in California and Lynn had hoped to bring the ashes for the hedgerow but since 9/11 we aren’t quite sure about the protocol for flying. We did get him a big ol’ knit cap though- he was always cold. My brother Matt died several years later in his 40s. The day his wife picked up the ashes she stopped to see my dad and, upon leaving, said: “Well, I’d better get going. I’ve got Matt in the trunk.” (It’s kind of a family tradition.) I believe Matt is still hanging around at his oldest daughter’s. My dad died most recently. We got a little better at planning and discovered that he could be interred at the veteran’s cemetery. Dad was never in anyone’s trunk but not because we love him any less. We love them all we just don’t know quite where to go with them once they’re gone.

One might think we’d take a clue from all this but I don’t think any of us has. I know I got nothing in the works. I’ll be dead so it won’t matter to me. I’ve already signed the back of my driver’s license for scientific research so there’s that option and I could do worse than to have been much loved and end up in someone’s trunk.

Don’t worry…the tic goes away after a while.

Maybe I should make a better plan- meh…


1 comment:

  1. I've got you covered. Put it in your will that your children must scatter your ashes over the blue waters of the Caribbean. They get to go on a trip AND get bereavement discount for the flights. Win-win.

    - Liz