We stood on the hillside, the early July sun warm, the notes of Danny Boy on the bagpipes lingered in the blue air. It was not like other funerals–no lowering the casket on a winch, no Astroturf around a large grave. Three small holes had been prepared.
Daddy had died in January, Mom in April, and Rod thirty-five years ago. In 1975, our Uncle Sam had offered my hollow parents a place for Rod in his family plot. A temporary plan since he had spots enough only for his own family, but a place to put Rod since Mom and Dad hadn’t thought to acquire a cemetery plot. All of our relatives on my mother’s side lay under flat white marble stones: great-grandfather and great-grandmother, our grandparents, Uncle Jimmy killed at Anzio, Uncle Charlie, the baby who didn’t live past three. In the spring, mom and I would go with her clippers and whiskbroom, trimming the ivy tendrils, brushing away pine needles and acorns. Mom had planted hyacinth bulbs that bloomed, fragrant, each spring. I liked taking care of the graves—sort of a WASPY Day of the Dead habit. Each December, we’d lay evergreens on every tombstone, except for Jimmy’s. His fiancé, Aunt Joan, laid a juniper spray on his every year, an echo of love and loss that still makes me shiver a little. After his death, she had married his Princeton roommate. She remained my mother’s good friend, was devoted to my grandparents, arranged he flowers for my wedding. And she loved my mother’s favorite brother, who died on the first day of the push towards Rome. Jimmy is buried in Italy, the plot number noted in Mom’s calendar in her careful print. Someday, I will go and lay a wreath there.
The other night my sister asked if I remembered Rod’s burial, the silver casket. I don’t. I have other bits and pieces from the days following his accident, from the funeral, but not that.
She asked, “Do you remember that Dad had just lost it, that Mom finally had to say, “We’re going, John. We are going,” and basically had to rip him away?
“No,” I answered. I didn’t. But I think maybe I do remember, her brief prompt calling up images.
“There isn’t enough room for your father to be buried next to your brother in our plot,” our oldest cousin had reminded us kindly when Daddy died. So, we left Daddy’s ashes with the undertaker until we could make a plan. And when Mom died, unexpectedly, three months later, we asked Chadwick—her undertaker, different from Dad’s undertaker—to exhume Rod and cremate him, too, so the three could be together, not in the lovely Church of the Redeemer Courtyard, but in Eagles Mere. Neither my sister nor I live in Bryn Mawr anymore. Eagles Mere is home—for her, year round; for us, in the summer, but it is the place that calls us, our home. They would be close to us there; we could begin new grave tending.
So, we brought them all home for what Virginia, our minister, had explained would be a tucking in, like tucking a child into bed for the night—less final than a burial, more everyday, cozy. Virginia is the granddaughter of the Bishop who married our parents; her father was great pals with Mom’s brother; they are as Eagles Mere as we are. She, herself, loved our Mom, knew that “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden,” was one of Mom’s favorite introductions to the passing the peace at 8:00 a.m. Communion. Having someone who loved our mom made her death—now three months long—both better and more final. This was the real end. We had had a proper service in the Redeemer for both of them, more formal affairs, a few days after they died, precisely three months apart. They were the standard Episcopalian funerals with O God our help in ages past resounding from the organ, homilies offered by people who did not really know our parents. For Daddy, members of St. Anthony Hall, his fraternity at Penn, processed from the back of the church, each laying a sprig of hemlock on the box that held his ashes. I was the last one, having joined the fraternity, myself, to please my Dad. Lee had spoken at Daddy’s service and I at Mommy’s. There had been tea sandwiches and devilled eggs in the Parish House, Mom presiding Queen-like and frail at Daddy’s reception; my sister and me, a little shell-shocked by the fast loss of both parents, receiving guests as graciously as we had been taught to do at Mom’s service in April.
In the 80’s Lee and Seth and I bought cemetery plots from Bud Watts, the town clerk, whose home stood at the end of the driveway at Self-Help. Now, it is Seth’s and my retirement cottage, the view of the back of Mom’s house appealing. We had plenty of room in our adjoining plots on the side of the hill, looking down. I read somewhere that cemeteries are often on hillsides to offer the dead a view. Years ago, at the summer theatre program my husband and I ran in Eagles Mere, we had brought the kids to this cemetery to help them visualize Act III in Our Town. They wandered about, some intrigued by names and inscriptions, a few weirded out by being in a graveyard at dusk. Wilder’s words float back to me,
“Yes, an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down up here. People just wild with grief have brought their relatives up to this hill. We all know how it is … and then time … and sunny days … and rainy days. .. ‘n snow … We’re all gladthey’re in a beautiful place and we’re coming up here ourselves when our fit’s over. Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have beentelling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Death is for the living. We need to say goodbye, to punctuate the ending. So, each grandchild helped to tuck in Mom and Dad and Rod, dropping dirt and stones and twigs softly, a gentler ending, the edges smoother, more a laying down of three matching boxes into the spaces that had been prepared for them. It must have been Gary or one of his kids who dug the holes. Rod in between Mom and Dad, as it should be. As it was. Lee and I didn’t talk about where to put them; it was understood. She will lie, eventually, next to Dad, and I to Mom, and we won’t be there to criticize if our children make a different call. There’s a certain autonomy survivors enjoy.
Virginia, our minister, offered some closing prayers, and then we melted away. The memorial service for Mom would be later that afternoon in our summer church, a loving, not quite raucous, but not too solemn, goodbye.