September 23, 2012
My brother Bill and I are out for a drive on a sunny September Saturday when we pass the old cemetery.
Neither of us mentions the headstones whizzing past, but I sense them, the way you might sense a stranger's breath or shadow, as Bill says, "What's more common now? Burial or cremation?"
Not sure, I say, but I'd guess that most people still go the old-fashioned way, relatively intact and in the safety of the ground.
The cemetery, in Fort Collins, Colo., where Bill lives, stretches on as we drive, old stones under big trees, a graveyard that, like so many others, was once on the fringe of town only to have the town grow up around it, the incessant churn of new life pressing at its borders.
"Do you think about it?" he says. "What you want?
"After I die?" I say.
Knowing Bill's long struggle with a cancer that won't quit, his past summer in and out of the hospital, I usually avoid the word when we're together. With the cemetery in the corner of my eye, the word is somehow easier to say without its being a renunciation of hope.
I tell Bill that, yeah, I keep thinking that I really need to make a will, need to figure out what to do with my belongings.
No, he says, he means a resting place. Or just a marker. Have I thought about that?
Until he asks the question, I haven't thought about it.
Thinking about the logistics of death is too easy to avoid. What's the rush?
But then an illness comes along — your own or someone else's — and the ultimate questions, the ones so far in the distance that they're ordinarily invisible, zoom into focus.
That's what hits me as Bill and I talk. Questions about our own death are there for all of us, all the time, not only for people who are sick or old. It's just that old age or illness accelerates, accentuates the need to answer.
We park by the Poudre River, get out and walk.
The sun is warm, the river sparkles and Bill's pain medicine is performing its daily miracle.
We keep talking.
About our father, how he's buried in a Phoenix cemetery, far from anyone who loved him. About our mother, whose ashes, at her request, we scattered in the Ocmulgee River in the Georgia town where she was born.
Shouldn't a husband and wife, a mother and father, be together in the afterlife? Shouldn't their children be near them? Shouldn't the souls of people who love each other stay assembled?
We talk about these questions even though neither of us is sure what a soul is, or where a soul might go when the body expires.
Bill asks me where my marker would be if I had one. Chicago? Georgia? I ask him where his would be. Fort Collins? Oregon?
Neither of us is sure.
How much easier these decisions were in a time when generations of families stayed close, when the local cemetery was the single destination, the cemetery as community with its roots in history and the land.
Now? Burial or cremation? An official marker? More than one? Here, there or somewhere else?
Along the river, Bill and I spot a bench. On it are inscribed a name, a date of birth, a date of death.
Now there's a good idea, we agree. A bench. An inscribed bench with a view. A gift to the living, a place where strangers and the people you love could sit for a while and rest.
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