When I showed my grandmother Death’s Garden, hot off the presses in 1996, I was nervous about what she would say about a book of essays about cemeteries. Grandma was a plainspoken woman who survived the Depression as a girl in Missouri. She didn’t spare your feelings if she could tell you the truth. It was one of the many things for which I respected her.
She paged through the photographs of grave monuments, examining each one. When she’d finished, she rested her gnarled hands on the book cover and asked, “Didn’t you include your grandfather’s stone?”
How could I tell her why? The marker made me uncomfortable. I dodged the question and said, “I didn’t have room for all the pictures I’ve taken.”
“I hope you’ll write about it someday,” she said.
The thing that made me uncomfortable about my grandfather’s gravestone is that it already had my grandmother’s name on it. When she bought the stone, the funeral home persuaded her that it would be cheaper to carve her name and birth date into the monument at the 1961 price. Then only the final date would need to be carved once the stone was set in place, a more expensive procedure since the engraver must travel to the cemetery. Throughout my whole life, the ground beside my grandfather’s coffin has been waiting to swallow my grandmother.
Grandma’s in her grave now. I hurried home to see her one last time, but fled before the end came. As the plane bore me back to San Francisco, I knew was I making a mistake. I should have stayed, I kept thinking. I should have stayed. I should have stayed ’til the end and watched her go into the ground.
October of 2000 was the first time I was able to come home after the funeral. I kept so busy after I arrived that I didn’t have a moment to visit the graveyard. Finally, about an hour before I needed to get in the car for the drive to Detroit to fly away again, I visited my family.
Once I rode my bike past the cemetery gates, I felt how this was my home, this little cemetery where my dad’s parents lie, where my mother’s mother and the only grandfather I remember lie, where my parents have four plots — one of which is mine, if I care to claim it. There, the names of my childhood molder under stones that say, “Not Dead, Only Sleeping” and “Passed Out of This Life.” Those old sentiments linger from the days when good Christians believed they would wait in their graves until Gabriel blew his trumpet and Jesus burst the bonds of death. I remember the stories of my childhood, even if they offer no comfort.
Grandma chose no epitaph, no words to sum up the life she left or the husband she joined. She was a staunch Baptist, saved as a girl at a tent revival. In the end, she believed that Jesus was waiting for her when she died, waiting to escort her home. I don’t have any such faith. I talk to her like she’s in the ground, not in the skies singing hosannas in her wavering, tone-deaf voice. I have no illusions that she’s sleeping beneath my feet.
As I framed a photo of Grandma’s headstone, I remembered her lying on her deathbed. I treasured the memory of seeing her brighten and call my name and tell me that she loved me. Tears prickled my eyes as I thought of all that is lost. I knew the photo could not capture what I felt, nor could any words. The woman I loved is gone, will always be gone. In her place, I am left with a stone.
Another post about Bendle Cemetery
Some information about Death’s Garden