Death, the subjugator of all who are interred within the boundaries of East Cemetery and the dispassionate host to those in search of a reason or an understanding or who seek to challenge its finality with the belief of perpetuity; death, my employer. I manicure its twenty eight acre kingdom with reverence for its subjects of course, but also with devotion to the communal living; they are where my empathy lies. Death's realm is cities of obelisks that reach deep into the sky and mausoleums that bear the names of the accomplished; it is rows of the rank and file and simple unmarked plots of those who couldn't afford to matter; it is neighborhoods arranged by nationality and faith; it is a place that mirrors the life left behind. As curator and custodian of this perpetual ruin I feel the weight of lineage whose namesake are etched in these stone tributes. They come to visit, some never missing a day while others, satisfying their moral obligation, make their yearly pilgrimage leaving the perfunctory flower as proof of their attendance.
From the pretentious to the sublime to the conventional, these monuments are the opening act of a life that may or may not have left a favorable legacy for the ones left to wonder about the greatest mystery of all. There is no pressure to be someone else in this place, to worry if how you grieve is perceived to be right or wrong. The bereaved revert back to the innocence of a child, a self in its rawest form when they stand before the grave of a loved one; there is no concern how they are judged. I regret not prying into the lives of some of those who came to my cemetery. There are clues to their past in the engravings I read and keepsakes left behind; dates that tell of a long life together and passing's that came only months apart, a love story that stood the test of time perhaps. Or the cryptic inscription of a wife who buried her husband far too soon only to be reunited after a long life as the spouse of another. A stuffed animal matted and weathered sits awkwardly against the base of a heart shaped monument as it waits for the visits that come less and less frequently.
I never met a woman once, I wish now that I introduced myself to her. She was a constant to the cemetery Monday through Friday driving a pale blue car that seemed to mirror her sad demeanor; she parked at the end of section F but did not call on any of the monuments in the long row that followed the hedges. Instead she would wash the windows of her humble car, sometimes moving to other sections where she would sit or stand outside but all the while never giving a hint as to why she was there. I felt compassion for her without knowledge of her plight; perhaps it was unwarranted. Did she immerse herself in a bottle neglecting everything that mattered, or was this woman chosen to suffer such an unimaginable loss that she sentenced herself to a life of mourning? My youth assured me no period of misfortune could pull me to such depths, I know now that a meeting would have enlightened my callow mind. She faded away after a couple years without fanfare and seemingly as in her woeful life, without being missed.
During my tenure as death's gatekeeper, irony showed its dreadful side choosing its victims without prejudice and without deliberation. A small plastic box filled with the remains of a war veteran rests under a white tablet on a gentle slope near the back of the cemetery. His faithful widow changing the flowers to reflect the season ambles between trunk and grave, shuffling her pots, dirt and tools she will use to create the small garden that will surround the slender monument. Suddenly a rush of workers and guests are running franticly to the slight elevation as the heavy woman lie under her small hatchback with only her bruised discolored legs escaping the crushing car. We lift in unison while other rescuers gently but swiftly pull her onto the soft grass where her husband rests. The woman's swollen face displays the shock of what was about to befell her as her liberators look on in silence knowing she has already left this world. Several weeks later, with the pageantry of an ink cartridge, the cremated remains of the sizable widow are delivered in a simple brown package to the cemetery office. Sitting next to me, I drive the one truck procession to where her husband awaits. I replay in my head the event that took place not fifteen feet from where I dig and try to form some kind of thought pattern that would help make sense of it. Eventually, the baseball game I was to coach my son in that evening fills my thoughts as does the grave I have to open before days end. She and her husband are reunited though I'm certain she would have objected to the method chosen to get her there.
There was a son who came to visit one day, I had not seen him before but his presence was undeniable; the drunken wail of his of sorrow lured me to a disheveled hulk balled up on the side where his father lay next to his mother. The almost incoherent rants as to why his father failed him were of incalculable resentment and the induced volume of his discontentment revealed the extent of his inebriation. I stood over him as priest, friend, therapist and concerned onlooker, the latter being the only mechanism for which I was qualified. His swollen eyes were wrought with whatever egregious acts he suffered; they were the eyes of a younger man whose advanced years were no doubt abetted by the empty cans strewn about his parent's grave. I greeted him with caution offering a generic salutation; he focused for a moment then sprung from his fetal position grabbing my forearm in a theatrical hand shake as if we hadn't seen each other since childhood, his face glimmering with gladness and alcohol. The impassioned apologizes as well as the excessive affection for our new found friendship were vintage inebriety but I sensed I was what he needed at that moment and gave him the benefit of my understanding. His ramblings gave me some insight as to why he would air his grievances in such a manner but I resisted the offer of pious encouragement opting to get him home for his well-being as well as others on the road, my offer accepted with ossified exuberance. Friends come to a cemetery to reflect, widowers come too silently weep; parents, to grieve; my anonymous friend, the broken son of one more novel I haven't read, came here to say goodbye. That evening he found the elusive peace he sought by aiming a long gun at his head and pulling the trigger while his mother and father lay helplessly beneath him. I respect the furtive calls of some of those who come here; they are unique in their motives and I do not wish to offend with my curiosity. My new "friend" drew me into his existence and though I am certain it was not his intention, I am grateful, for if he had been silent in his suffering I would have been left once again with the regret of not knowing.
I'll never forget my first car; a red 1965 Mustang convertible, 289 automatic with black top and black interior; I knew from seeing a picture in a magazine a couple years before I got my license that I would own one. Conversely, I had never been a cemetery enthusiast, after all, they were full of dead people; so accordingly, I didn't seek out the profession of grave digger, but I remember my first burial as if it was yesterday. I recall how it made me feel to lower a living, breathing person just like me into a dark lonely hole. She died in a moped accident while on vacation in Mexico with her family; she had lived sixteen years before we met. That night I read the news story and her obituary and I stared at the beautiful young face that was hidden under the shiny wooden casket. She'll reappear every so often and I'll think about all she missed, how changed her family would be if she never left; would she have embraced the life she was given? This reflection could be considered moot, a frivolous "what if" to some, but for me, she is no more just another burial then a first breakup, a first bike, a first dance. I've lain to rest hundreds since that young girl and have done so with consideration to those left behind but admittedly with far less contemplation to the deceased. At times information is shared after the ceremony is over and cars leave the cemetery and each story is exclusive in how people lived or died, but in a few days they blend in with the countless I've heard. Sometimes, when I think about that burial so long ago, about the tragic ending to a young girl's life, I wonder if the person I put in that dark lonely hole my first day was an eighty-nine year old great-grandmother; would she have been the "65" Mustang stuck in my subconscious; would her fulfilled life have conjured the same introspective reflection?
"The angel of death is the invisible angel of life"
Henry Mills Alden
Religion is the dominating theme in Deaths kingdom; in fact, it is hard to mention one without including the other, but it is faith in an intangible entity that carries the day. Ministers, rabbis, priests, professional speakers of the funeral ritual read ancient text in hopes that the enigmatic verses will give solace. To some the promise of those words comes only with the passage of time. Resurrection sounds like a pretty good deal (I know I'm banking on its verity) and what would a funeral be without mention of it? But there are cases when the pledge rings hollow. A family monument stands before three raised markers, the dates engraved on the small plum colored stones are in perfect chronologically order starting with the eldest son, then the second born and finally the youngest, none of them reaching their nineteenth birthday, all three deaths sudden and tragic. The historic events so eloquently recorded some two thousand years ago didn't prevent the divorce of the boy's parents or a mother's relocation to a place far away from her mind bending heartbreak. I wonder if time has tempered her anguish or perhaps the wisdom of Corinthians15:35-44 helped her to eventually understand; after thirty years I have seen the two antidotes both fail and triumph.
Over the years I have lowered bodies into the ground with hundreds in attendance and at times was alone in my task, their reward for living too long or, for whatever reason, just failing completely this time around. When Alzheimer's was done ravaging my mother's mind then body, I dug her grave. The irony of pain we shared—hers giving birth and mine, saying goodbye—was not lost in the backhoe that cold November morning. Death is king in East Cemetery, it is master over eventuality and inevitability, it is uncompromising but it is just; we grieve in its wake then wait for time and faith to heal. I didn't discuss grave digging with my high school guidance counselor nor did I aspire as a child to be the best cemetery worker that ever held a shovel, but I am grateful for the perspective this line of work has shown me. I have since trained myself in the art of tombstone carving and continue to savor the stories from those who have experienced the best and worst of life's offerings; they can lift the spirit or leave you numb. It would be an exaggeration to consider myself a humanitarian since, like the mechanic who fixes your car, I offer my services for pay; and altruistic may be too strong a word. I would however answer to thoughtful, caring or compassionate and not feel I've been overstated. There is the belief that everyone has a reason for being here regardless if their destiny is found or not. I stumbled upon mine (though fate may claim some credit) and, as a product of devout parents, have embraced my role as facilitator for death, faith and grief.
Memory is the Treasury and Guardian of all Things
Marcus Tullius Cicero