Almost ten years ago, we cremated my dad’s body. Then buried the boxed and bagged ashes at a cemetery in a woodsy Jewish cemetery in Queens, New York. Our family plot is right next to the gravel road that roams through the cemetery. When we gather for the anniversaries, we stand in the road and have to shuffle closer to the grass when a car drives slowly by, careful not to step on dad or grandpa’s grave marker.
I don’t much like cemeteries. Places to embalm our dead. They take up land so we can hold onto each year in remembrance. These tracts of the dead stretch out for miles upon miles. We have homeless people who sleep in squalor on the street while dead bodies are buried on acres of useable land. It betrays logic. Cemeteries are places of emotion and finance. How much does it cost a family each year to keep the grass trim above their beloved’s body, locked in that tomb? I don’t know what my dad thought of cemeteries, but I don’t think he much cared for them.
He wanted his ashes scattered over Walton Lake in upstate New York near the family summer-house, where as a kid he spent many summers fishing and swimming. That lake was special to him. He felt a freedom when he was at the lake, and a peace of mind that was rare in his life.
Instead, we took his boxed and bagged ashes, dug a hole in the ground at the family plot and buried ‘him’ there. It’s actually fairly impressive what a small container a body fits into once it’s lost itself.
What good is that headstone in that cemetery in Queens for those of us who lives so far away? It is an absent memorial. lf this physical memorial didn’t exist, the focus could be anywhere – perhaps floating free in the weedy waters of Walton Lake.
But now he is now static, fixed, in a far-away location. Embedded there is a concrete symbol. I’m somewhat resentful that there is this specific location stuck in my mind as related to him. We aren’t required to go there to mourn, but kind of like what photographs do to a memory, a headstone does to the grieving.