A few months ago, I had a conversation with the daughter of one of my hospice patients. I had asked about funeral arrangements and she told me they were in place. “Not only that, my parents have the stone up already. It has their names on it. Sometimes they go and spend time there. It’s really weird.” I have to admit, I too thought it was a bit weird. But that was before I bought the marker for Bob’s grave.
Since we had never discussed our own funerals, it goes without saying that we had never discussed tombstones, grave markers, or any of the other ways we memorialize our dead. So there it was, another learning curve I wasn’t quite prepared for. The cemetery where Bob’s family is buried is a “garden cemetery,” a “memorial park.” There are no tombstones. The markers are bronze and flat. There are three major decisions to make: vase or no vase, single or double marker, and concrete or granite base.
It turns out that those were easy decisions.
“Vase or no vase?” From the very first, my stepdaughter said she wanted Bob’s marker to have a vase. So that decision was made. When we go to the cemetery, we’ll have a place to put flowers.
“Single or double?” We have different last names which doesn’t really work with the marker designs. If you have a double marker, the names are on little attached plaques which wouldn’t give enough room to say what we wanted to say. And I’m really not ready to see my name on grave marker. I’m hoping it won’t need to be there for a long, long, long time.
“Concrete or granite base?” I asked Jules what she thought. She said granite. Our cousin Bob had already told me that the granite was nicer. Granite it is.
Once that was out of the way, we needed to choose the design. When we went to the cemetery between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jules and I checked out the other markers, including the ones on the family graves. We didn’t like the ones with flowered borders. Some had designs between the dates instead of a dash. Some had full dates and some just the years. We decided that we liked the Jewish star more than the menorah design. We wanted the full dates. We talked about the wording. And my journal entry from that day reads, “The jury is still out on whether to include his Hebrew name.”
Last month, I got the brochure, perused the designs, consulted with Jules, and ordered the marker. While there were several designs I could live with, the one I liked best was the “Shalom Alekhem” design with a border of Hebrew letters scattered higgledy piggledy along the border. Frankly, the best part about it is how much it would have amused Bob. After all, he was the one who chose the wording for our wedding invitations, suggesting that our wedding would be in Jerusalem “unless the Messiah tarries” in which case we would get married, as we did, in Cambridge. I’m fairly certain that the most amusing part of the invitation, for Bob, was knowing that most of his friends would assume that I chose it and that he, besotted with me, just went along with it.
So the marker is ordered and we wait. We can’t set the date for the unveiling until the stone is set. They don’t set the markers in place until April. And that assumes the snow is all melted and there aren’t any surprise snow storms. While we know the date we want, we don’t yet know if we’ll have that date or what time the cemetery will give us. So we wait.
But with all these decisions, there’s one discussion we haven’t had; one thing we haven’t acknowledged. I now understand that in choosing my husband’s grave marker, I am making statements, if not decisions, about my own. It doesn’t matter that the marker is a single one. It doesn’t matter that my name is not yet there. Some day, I hope in the far future, someone will have to make the decisions about my grave marker. There will be discussions about the wording and the design. Even if I am not a part of those discussions, Bob’s grave will be marked with the words, their setting, and the design that was important to me and to Jules. The talks we’ve had will influence the marker that will be mine.
I now better understand my patients who take care of arranging their stones before their deaths. They choose to spare their loved ones the task of making real what is so very, very real. In making the choices themselves, they determine what is important and how they want the generations to remember them. It is a difficult thing to chose the words and the design to memorialize someone you love. But there is a healing in having the discussions, making the choices, and in remembering.