Memorialization

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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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.