I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with cemeteries my entire life. I remember as a child being fascinated by the old stone slab gravestones with skulls and crossbones on them, and was always hoping to come across some whenever I happened across a cemetery. However, in all my years of growing up in the Canadian prairies, I never found any, just simple markers or the more ubiquitous larger granite (mostly horizontal) headstones that we know today. Certainly, the church cemetery outside my town was too new (less than 100 years old) and too practical to be of any interest to me as a teenager.
That said, my family was connected to the cemetery in many ways. My father was a member of the cemetery committee, and they took it upon themselves to renew the somewhat dilapidated cemetery that had seen better days. This meant looking at old records to confirm who was buried where, as many graves were without markers or very faded ones. In some cases they could confirm burials, but not locations. Over time, the cemetery renewal began to take shape. The committee raised a lot of money through a yearly cemetery raffle that was always quite popular. New plots were laid out in systematic rows. A large memorial was put up for those without headstones. Trees were planted and a fence was put up. Various members of my family (and those of the committee) would spend time there watering trees, cutting the grass, and doing other maintenance. Because of my so-called computer skills, I was tasked with creating spreadsheets of current and future burials.
Many years later, during my first Masters degree, I jumped at the opportunity to write a research paper about Toronto cemeteries. Much of the background research I did focused on European cemeteries, and as such, I longed to see the beautiful memorial sculptures of iconic cemeteries like London’s Highgate West, Paris’ Pere Lachaise, and Genoa’s Staglieno. Over the past decade I have visited these and more, and they always seemed a world removed from the tiny cemetery with its practical markers just outside of my town.
Still, whenever I came home every now and then, my dad would take me to the cemetery to show me new improvements (like the new headstone for my grandparents), or to help out with maintenance. One of these so-called outings resulted in me having to paint the numbers on all the new plot markers that they had laid out in the rest of the cemetery. Apparently, both my handwriting and my knees were better than my dad’s, so I was asked to do it. At one point, my dad stood beside me and told me that the plot he was standing in front of was for him and my mom. I was like, well, that’s kind of morbid, when he then dropped the real bomb on me. “And that’s your plot,” he said, pointing to where I was kneeling. I stopped where I was, paintbrush in my hand. “What?” “Oh, that’s your plot. You’ll be beside me and your mother.”
I needed a moment.
There I was, on my knees, yellow paint dripping from the paintbrush in my hand. I couldn’t believe it. Why would I need a plot? I was only 30 years old! Did my parents think I was going to die alone and childless? It’s not often that I’m tongue-tied, and my dad must have took pity on me because he explained that it was a “just in case” something happened to me, so I didn’t have to worry about it. I understood what he was talking about as I knew there was some maneuvouring amongst the townfolk to stake out their claims to ideal plots within the cemetery. A lot of haggling and trading went on, especially for those desperate to be buried next to (or close to) loved ones. Still, I was a bit perturbed that my final resting place was so firmly decided upon without my knowledge or consent.
Now, over a decade later, I can laugh at this story. Or so I thought. Recently I was talking to my parents on Skype and they told me that had purchased and set up their headstone already. They showed me some pictures they took of it. Everything, including their own laser-etched picture is on it; all save the dates. The stone is very similar in design and look to the headstone they got for my grandparents, as well as two of my uncles. As such, the back of the stone says “Proud parents of R___ and M___” (my brother), “Grandparents of D____ and J____” (my nephews). Well. This brought me back to my 30-year-old self kneeling on her future gravesite. Although back then it was “my parents think I’m going to die alone and childless” to now “my parents know I’m going to die alone and childless.”
I needed another moment.
To be fair, I am in my 40s now and while there’s no certainty that I’ll still be single by the time I meet my maker, it is very likely that I will never have children. However, seeing that carved in stone was like the biological clock inside me being smashed to pieces. Thanks mom and dad. I guess practicality over sentimentality wins every time in my family. It does make sense. The romanticised version I had of my funeral, with my ashes being thrown to the wind over a seaside cliff with a beautiful sunset, was probably never going to happen. That said, I think I might hold off planning my headstone just yet.