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Friday, February 12, 2010

Burial Plans?

When was the last time you visited a cemetery (without attending a funeral)? Were you visiting in order to honor anyone specifically? Did you even know anyone that was buried in that cemetery?

During my high school years, I had a job mowing the lawn of a country church cemetery. I think it paid $25 per week, and the church provided an old rickety riding lawn mower. (I had to borrow my step-father's truck to haul it though.) It seemed a little peculiar at times.

My father had died when I was three and he was buried in that cemetery. There were also several names I recognized from our farming community (in northeast Ohio). I remember being annoyed sometimes when the tractor would go over the oldest graves and there would be huge dips where the old wooden coffins had collapsed. If you weren't careful the tractor could get stuck in those dips! Ewwww!!!!!!

Over the years, I've often found myself wandering through old cemeteries. When I worked in London, England there were some impressive old cemeteries. The stones were hundreds of years old. Most of them you couldn't even read any more. I found myself wondering who those people were.

More recently, I have to confess that most of my visits to cemeteries have been with my son to search for geocaches ( These are obscure trinkets (or treasures - depending on your perspective) that people hide and then other people (like me) try to find them using a satellite tracking device. It seems that many of the geocachers like to hide things in old cemeteries. And so we wade into old, often broken down and forgotten cemeteries in search of a dollar store trinket, using a satellite in space to find it.

I often wonder what the people buried in the cemeteries would think if they could see the cemeteries now. How would they feel about the broken and worn tombstones with names that are barely recognizable? Would they welcome frolicking families, with chocolate lab in tow, searching for hidden treasures? And what about the people that buried them? Do their loved ones still visit? Who is living today that even knows they're buried there? Or cares?

So here it is, my life observation if you will. I notice that after a generation or two, nobody visits, maintains or appears to care about anyone's grave. So I wonder if it is really worth it. Flying into New York's La Guardia airport, I've often circled over a vast, sprawling cemetery that obviously consumes acres and acres of land in the midst of one of the most heavily populated and congested parts of the country. I've visited that cemetery and noticed that most of the graves are more than 100 years old.

I wonder if it is really worth it to have people burning fossil fuels to drive farther out from the city to live - because the land in the city is occupied ... by dead people. Did the dead people really think this through before they moved (their bodies) there?

Even here in my own town (Plano, Texas), I can count at least three cemeteries that are old, run down and never visited. One ended up behind an alley of newly built custom homes. Choked with weeds, it was a family plot that eventually got developed on both sides. Luckily the developer put a decent fence around it and mowed off the weeks so it wouldn't be such an eyesore for the new homeowners.

Another old cemetery in our town hit the jackpot. It had the fortune to be in the center of the Shops At Legacy, an urban center. The developers of high end shops, offices and condos built a swanky fence around this old cemetery, cleaned it up and put a series of metal long-horn cow statues up to make it look like some kind of a park.

But these are the exceptions. Most old cemeteries here and anywhere else in the western world, seem to "die out" (no pun intended) after a generation or two passes. The descendants don't usually even know where their ancestors are buried. Much less do they seem to care ... based on how often they visit or how well they maintain the grave plots.

King Solomon, of Old Testament lore, was said by God to be the "wisest man who ever lived." He said, "There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow." (Ecclesiastes 1:11) It strikes me that King Solomon wasn't in the business of selling grave markers. But he understood life. And while he was at the time talking about how we make too much of life, I think he revealed another important truth. We make too much of death.

People die, and in our grief we spend exorbitant amounts of money on funerals, swanky caskets, and grave markers. And yet, King Solomon told us thousands of years ago that such spending would really just be folly. Nobody cares. Nobody will care.

What people care about is their pain and grief when they lose a loved one. Perhaps a few care thereafter "out of respect for the dead." But for the most part, we don't remember those who've gone before us. It is our human condition.

So I decided long ago to have my dead body cremated and the ashes disposed of in the least ceremonious way possible. Why? Because I am under no illusion that my children or grandchildren really have the capacity to care much beyond my death. I bet yours don't either.

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