Temporary Marker

In my father's neighborhood.

Ann setting temporary marker stone on her father's grave. photo: Tom Bailey.

Ann setting temporary marker stone on her father's grave. photo: Tom Bailey.

It's been three months since I buried my father at Steelmantown Cemetery and the woods have changed with the season. When I visited this weekend most of the forest vegetation that masked the sound of nearby traffic was leafless, and oak leaves steadily spinning through hazy afternoon light softened the forest floor as they piled up in red-gold heaps. 

With my mother still alive I haven't had much time to grieve. It's not like I felt a wrenching hole in my psyche when my father died. Now sadness is creeping in on the accumulation of small moments when he would have been here, would have said something. And the holidays are coming up.

I need to address his absence, so Tom and I took a road trip to south Jersey. We stopped for lunch at Burger King at the exit from the Garden State Parkway, and I picked a table while Tom ordered food.

"This is probably where Ed comes for lunch," Tod smirked. "They're showing soccer on the tv."

At first I had no idea what he was talking about then I thought, oh yeah, he's just down the road. The idea of seeing my father sitting in the restaurant--the young Ed? Old and bent over? A ghoul? startled me into a laugh.

I'd been worried how I'd respond to seeing his grave; would I cry? No, I didn't. As we walked into the forest any morbid thoughts left me. My brother-in-law had wondered how we would find the grave and we did wander a bit; the moss-covered path converges and diverges and has deadends; until we recognized the recent grave of a Native American brought here from North Dakota. Luckily his is marked with colorful flags because my nearby father's grave was almost unrecognizable. He was a skinny guy, and we buried him in a shroud so there's not much to cave in. The mound of forest soil was settling under its blanket of oak leaves, and already a few shoots of wild blueberry and brambles poked through. 

When I knelt beside the grave I thought I caught a faint whiff of death but he's too far down for that. Too far down, I realized, to be in contact with the roots of the forest plants as I'd hoped. The late sun shown almost horizontally into the space and lit up silken webs being spun by tiny green spiders with red heads that I would never have noticed if I hadn't been so close.

This is my father's neighborhood. And he's active. His death is a process. I made a mental note to determine what stage he would be at based on passage of time. He's not stewing away. All those bodies in there, and Ed Bixby has sure been burying plenty, are busily working their way toward dissolution and not passively decomposing. My father couldn't stand to sit still; he shopped for food every day for an excuse to get out. His mound looked oddly like a body lying in wait under the leaves until we'd gone. Tom tried to get a photograph but there's too little relief to show his mound. 

We chose two new chunks from Ed's piles of fieldstone markers and pounded them into place, one for my mother's reserved grave and one for my father. It's humanly contrarian to want to mark a grave that's supposed to go back to the earth, but so be it. When the gravediggers filled in the grave they added conglomerate stone. I thought it looked artificial, or maybe I just needed to do something. Restless, like my father. 

The trail back was lined with stones where people had purchased plots pre-need. Ed has been selling as well as burying; the secret of green burial is out.