Grave markers

I haven't marked my father's grave.

All photos in this blog are by  Tom Bailey

All photos in this blog are by Tom Bailey

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It's been almost two years since my father died and I buried him in a grave at Steelmantown Cemetery, a natural burial ground in southern New Jersey. Ed Bixby keeps a supply of field stones dug up during maintenance of the cemetery for use as grave markers, but at the time of my father's death it was all the family could do to hold ourselves together through grief and the logistics of death. Getting him safely in the ground was the priority, though before leaving the cemetery we picked out a stone that would go across two graves, as my mother will one day be buried in the plot that lies next to him.

I fully intended to have the engraver pick up the stone and finish it; we even had a tentative wording picked out. But first the stone seemed awful big for the purpose, even if my mother would be memorialized too. Then family dynamics deteriorated and talk of what to say evaporated. I knew where he was buried; the rest of the family is scattered across the country and wouldn't be able to find the plot on their own. Finally I decided in a huff that if no one else was interested in the stone then why should I make an effort? As time went on family relations smoothed out and we talked about it again. I even went so far as to pick out a new stone, just for my father. 

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All these things, though probably pretty common in the stages of grief and reaction to death, seem petty. Yet my father's grave still has no stone, even though we are all talking to each other again. Why? And does it matter?

Mostly what drives me to worry about the stone is guilt. I feel like I should mark my father's grave. Yet I'm not sure it would matter to him. My husband's choice of words would have been "Ed Hoffner--A Pretty Good Man." He wasn't without ego but he wasn't into fuss. He was the kind of man who figured out how to make pockets on the backs of his pants by sewing on pieces of cloth, because it was the easiest way to get it done and he didn't mind how it looked.

Memorialization is a personal matter but it's also a collective choice. Green burial cemeteries choose to forgo polished cut stone grave markers in favor of markers that resemble what comes out of the earth, either stone or plant, and in some cases opting for group memorials instead of individual grave markers. It's important for those of us who choose green burial to understand what we're comfortable with, and then to make an appropriate memorial within the bounds of what the collective cemetery allows. After all, even conventional cemeteries have carefully laid-out rules about memorialization.

Like anything else, choosing how to memorialize someone can be fraught with uncertainty if done when death occurs. If you haven't planned ahead of time, it's okay. The earth always takes time to settle, and the person you are thinking about is not going away.

Ultimately, of course, the forest will entirely reclaim my father's grave and his remains, because that's the idea of a place like Steelmantown, a forest as a memorial. Beyond his grandchildren no one's likely to visit the grave. So whether I follow through on a stone to get rid of the final niggle of doubt, I don't know. Perhaps it will happen when my mother dies, because then, I think, it will really seem like he is gone

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Should natural burial grave markers be subject to standards?

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve   photos by Tom Bailey

Grave at Ramsey Creek Preserve  photos by Tom Bailey

Humans probably have marked the graves of their dead for as long as they've lived in social groups, but the rise of massive cemetery headstones occurred only in the last couple centuries in America. It's easy to evoke an image of a modern cemetery with just a few strokes; green grass and upright stones or elaborate statues carved from stone and engraved and you know what it is.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to memorialize a loved one or to be memorialized yourself. Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions for creating his tombstone, including engraving three accomplishments "because by these," he explained, "as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered."

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

Town of Rhinebeck Cemetery Natural Burial Ground

We don't use polished granite or marble headstones in memory of people in green or natural burial grounds. It's not that rock isn't green, though one could argue that engraving uses energy. It's that we're creating a new landscape--meadow or forest usually--not something that looks like a cemetery, though that word means simply a piece of ground where burials are made, and we imbue it with our own concept of what it should look like. We are recycling ourselves back into nature and becoming a part of it.

According to the Green Burial Council which sets standards and certifies cemeteries, "Natural and conservation cemeteries must develop a plan for limiting the types, sizes, and visibility of memorial markers/features to preserve or restore naturalistic vistas in the cemetery landscape." 

Yet I was disturbed on recent tours of green burial cemeteries along the East Coast by the proliferation of large stones with elaborate engravings.

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park

All the cemeteries I visited and those in The Natural Burial Cemetery Guide put constraints on the kind of marker that's allowed on graves. Individual grave markers are usually limited to local stone that fits the landscape, must lay flat, not be polished or machine cut to shape. A few cemeteries impose size limits; Narrow Ridge Natural Burial Preserve in Washburn, Tennessee calls for grave markers of modest size, and at Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park in Austin, Texas markers must be less than 2 feet across. At Kokosing Nature Preserve in Gambier, Ohio graves are distinguished by unobtrusive markers. What struck me was how visible even a grave marker that fits the parameters can be.

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Duck Run Natural Cemetery--stone path marks cremation sites

Is this a problem? Isn't stone natural, especially if it was dug up in the cemetery anyway? A hundred years from now when a natural burial cemetery has become a forest will it detract if someone walking through the forest sees gravestones? Won't it in fact be kind of neat?

Green Hills Cemetery

Green Hills Cemetery

People sometimes perceive antipathy among green burial cemeteries to memorials. I think it's important to let people mark graves. Yet after visiting cemetery after cemetery, the size and number of objects began to worry me. Often I got caught up in bending over stones to see what they said and realized at the end that I hardly noticed the landscape that was being so lovingly created. Is the instinct to mark our passing through this world becoming mixed up with a human instinct towards grandiosity? Not everywhere, and not everyone, but natural burial actually doesn't look natural. In 20 years or so when there's nothing left of a body underground, what's the point of a personalized stone if the meadow or forest is the true memorial?

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

Kateri Meadow Natural Burial Preserve--no stone, just different flowers mark a grave.

One solution cemeteries have come up with is to prohibit markers on individual graves and go for group memorials. This is especially relevant where a burial ground is attempting to create a new landscape and prohibiting human traffic is part of the strategy for getting plants going or preserving the look of the place; this is often seen with meadows.

Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana doesn't permit individual grave markers and has erected a memorial wall with spaces for families to record the names of their dead and locate their graves in the section.

Cemeteries may designate such areas as "non-visitation," and anyone burying there is aware of the limitations. The Preserve at All Saints in Waterford, Michigan has both visitation and non-visitation sections, and non-visitation burials may be inscribed on a stone memorial wall. Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey, doesn't allow individual's graves in the Saint Francis of Assisi natural section to be marked but their names are inscribed on scattered boulders.

Steelmantown Cemetery

Steelmantown Cemetery

There's something to be said for uniformity, like Catholic cemeteries which limit the size of headstones in their conventional cemeteries as a way to indicate that all are equal in death. Truly small stones big enough to list the name and dates of the dead would allow for memorialization but not make the oh-so-human statement of "Here I am!"

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

St. Michael's Meadow. At Calvary Cemetery natural graves are part of the meadow landscape, with conventional sections in the distance.

 

 

Dear Ancestor...where are you?!

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My family is not great at memorialization. I can't point to a historically wonderful headstone marking our presence in this country, even though all branches that led to me arrived before the 20th century. We don't have a family cemetery plot. Anyone who died in the last thirty years was cremated and their ashes scattered. As Palmer's poem hints, graves are where ancestors mix and markers help the living find the dead.

When my father died last year we buried him at Steelmantown Cemetery in south Jersey because it's a natural burial ground and also because family members live nearby, which meant something as I'm 2 1/2 hours away. Like most such cemeteries Steelmantown limits individual grave markers to natural field stones, regulates engraving and oversees placement. For reasons having to do with the scattered nature of my family we haven't gotten around to finalizing a stone, though we did pick one out from the piles that Ed saves from digging in the cemetery. I thought the memorial would be important, but the shear emotional content of my father's burial looms so large that I don't miss the marker. 

I would however be very upset if the position of the grave were lost because Steelmantown is a forest and much as I want my father to become part of the landscape, I also want his death to be individually known. The fact that my recent relatives were all scattered to the winds at death leaves a hole--I have no place to visit them.

Doing away with polished headstones is a big part of green burial. It both adds an alternative to the impersonal grassy cemeteries of conventional burial and fits in with the concept of burial as part of a natural landscape. But we shouldn't lose sight of the importance humans place on memorialization. On being remembered. Bob Prout, funeral director and green burial advocate, once told me that beyond the first generation of mourners very few graves are visited, yet we need to heed the sensitivities of families. Like me.

As the green burial concept expands and more cemeteries come on line, the option becomes local. Now if you want green burial your choices will be limited by location. You should still be sure to think about and accept consciously a cemetery's grave marker policy. Burial grounds in sensitive ecological areas and ones that are creating a new landscape often opt to prohibit human traffic once the body is committed to the earth, and provide instead for group memorialization on a wall or scattered boulders. Others like Steelmantown allow engraved fieldstones that match the geology of the area. All define and record graves so their locations don't get lost as the landscape is restored.

The absence of grand grave memorials can be be shown in a positive light. Their lack should not be viewed as a negative.