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They started looking at cemeteries five years ago, when Grandma had her first run-in with cancer. Other folks in their elderly community had begun doing their research and staking out a plot for their eternal sleep, so Grandma and Grandpa felt they also need to make arrangements for a hassle-free afterlife.

The first cemetery they visited had a pleasant feel: well-groomed slopes, the shade of elegant aspen and sycamore, and a very nice, upscale office. After a tour of the grounds, Mama and her parents, my grandparents, entered the office to discuss rates. The sales personnel was professional and quite assertive, and Mama couldn’t help thinking that they work on commission. After the price was set for one site, the sales woman eyed Mama and said nonchalantly, “We’re actually having a sale this week: buy one, get the second half off…” At first Mama didn’t understand, but then it hit her – she was being offered to capitalize on the upcoming passing of her parents and buy a site for herself.

“Well, I’m not planning to….you know….go anytime soon.” She retorted in indignation. “Prices are going up,” responded the sales woman coolly, “and we all have to go sometime. Might as well take advantage of the sale and buy now.” Mom shuddered at the flawless logic. At 85, the grandparents ended up not making a purchase at that time, because the cemetery did not allow upright standing tombstones, and Grandpa was determined to have one. And since arrangements were not made, they decided to live on.

Recently, though, they started looking again. The real-estate market in San Diego was on the upswing, and the time to buy was now. But finding a good match proved more complicated than they anticipated.  First there was the matter of the tombstone. It had to be upright, the way Grandpa remembered them placed in the Jewish portion of cemeteries in Russia. Since there was a Jewish cemetery in San Diego, this seemed the best place to investigate. When she called to inquire, the conversation between Mama and the funeral home worker went something like this:

“Hello, I am wondering if you have a lot available, and if so, what are the costs?”

“Good morning! Yes we do. We charge separate fees for body processing, a grave site, and the burial. The processing fee is $15,000, burial is $8,000 and the site itself another $7,000”.

Shocked by the significant “processing fee”, Mama asked in the gentlest way possible, “What exactly do you do with a dead body before burying it that costs fifteen thousand dollars?”  The speaker on the other side politely explained that it’s a traditional Jewish burial, which includes ceremonial cleaning and preparing the deceased according to all Jewish customs. “Imagine that,” Mom later marveled to me, “They still bury the way they did in Jesus’ time. The traditions haven’t changed at all….”

Would they buy someone who was Jewish by descent but not practicing? Sure. Would they bury a gentile wife next to him? Yes, it’s possible. Would they bury an urn, because she, unlike Grandpa, had no intention of taking her body along into the afterlife? Well, that will pose a problem. According to the Jewish faith, cremation is not acceptable. They hung up, Mom more educated and back at square one.

The urn was the second logistical issue to address. If cemeteries buried bodies, they typically did not accept urns. If they provided a special building for the urns, there would be no place to put Grandpa next to Grandma, because he was set on his tombstone. Burying an urn inside a coffin seemed odd, and the more Mama thought about it, the more it seemed a better idea just to bury grandpa and take grandma along, maybe placing her in the family garden and then, if they moved, to take her with them. But eventually that option was thrown out as well, because it just wouldn’t be right to separate the grandparents after they’d spent over 50 years together.

There was also the problem of finding a good location. The place had to look peaceful, serene. Who wants to spend eternity by the side of a road? Or cramped up against someone else? One cemetery looked promising until it became apparent that the grass cutters actually rode their mowers right over the graves to cut the grass. Grandpa was unsettled by this: “When I go, I want to be in peace. I don’t want some sooty, stinky grass cutting machine mowing over me.” When Mama and Grandma pled with him to be reasonable, he retorted wryly, “Over my dead body!” And that was that.

Plots in the shade of trees cost more, as did more elaborate tomb stones. When they finally settled on a location which was able to elegantly combine the requirements of both grandparents, the heated tombstone negotiations began. The stone would not be built until the cost was paid in full. This time it was Grandma’s turn to speak up, “How is it that we’re paying $15,000 for something that we won’t even get to see?! I want to see it. I want to know how it will look…” And so, after many rounds of back-and-forth, they agreed that they would put a third down, and it would go towards building the stone, which they’ll get to see in three months.

Musing on their recent adventures, Mama mentioned that maybe it would make sense just to buy a plot there for all of us. That way we could be together, finally all in one place. I felt an urge to mention to her that actually, I wanted to be buried in a biodegradable tree bark coffin in order to be reintegrated into the earth as soon as possible, while Grisha fully intended to have me scatter his ashes over the Grand Canyon. By the time the kids were ready to go, they’d probably be able to upload their identities to the cloud, while our grandchildren would most likely live forever. Also I was tempted to say that if all went well, our souls would be in a much better place than even the lovely cemetery they found on a sloping green hill in sunny San Diego.

But I didn’t want to initiate another logistical nightmare. Instead, I agreed, “Yes, it will be lovely to be together. I’m in.”

The other day we were driving by a cemetery, and the following conversation transpired between me and my five-year-old daughter:

V: Mama, what is that place?
Me: That’s a cemetery.
V: What do you do there?
Me: You put dead people there.
V: But I don’t see any dead people. Where are they?
Me: Well, they’re in the ground. See, when somebody dies, you have to do something with them. You can’t just leave them lying around. So usually they go in a box, and then the box is buried. See how there are flowers and those tombstones? There’s a box with a person under each of those stones…
V: But don’t they get cramped up, lying in that box all day? Don’t they want to move around?
Me: No. When you’re dead, you don’t move. Remember we saw that dead squirrel on the road? Remember how it wasn’t moving at all?
V: Yeah, I remember…So they just lay there?
Me: Yup, that’s all they do.

Later that day the kids overhear an exasperated Mama saying to her exasperating husband, “Hon, you’re just killing me…really, you are…”. Poor Miss V tells me that she doesn’t want Dad to kill me. I try to explain that it’s a figure of speech; that it only means that he is really really irritating me. But the idea sticks, and death is all the rage now.

We go camping and the kids are playing with small stuffed toy birds. I overhear this:

V (speaking in a tiny bird voice): I’m dying! I’m dead now.
Fatty Pants (speaking in a funny bird voice): I’m dying too. Who killed you?
V: You’re killing me!
Fatty Pants: I’m dead now too!
Me (unable to resist): But wait! We can still save the birds! We must give them cardiac compressions. Where is the defibrillator? One, two, three…One, two, three…Yes! We have a pulse! Congratulations, Miss V, your bird has been resurrected from the dead!
Fatty Pants: Mama, do mine too…
Me: OK. One, two, three…she lives!

At night the topic is brought up again.

V: Mama, I don’t want you to die.
Me: I don’t want to die either.
V: I’ll live forever.
Me: Typically all people die at some point, but don’t worry. It won’t be for a long, long while.
V: But what will happen then?
Me: Then? Well, hopefully we’ll be back, living again, but different this time. ( I can feel Dad’s stern look on my back…)
V: Really? Are you sure?
Me: Well, I’ve never been dead before, so I can’t really say for sure. But I hope so…

***

Considering the number of people who die each day, it’s baffling that we so rarely come in contact with death and the dying in our day-to-day. Considering that we will all die at some point, and most of us will undergo a certain period of “getting dead”, it’s surprising that we don’t talk more about it.

I remember visiting an older friend in Belgium. On her tour of Brussels, she took a detour to visit her elderly father in a nursing home, and we tagged along. Later it turned out that she herself works with cancer patients, and that many of them never do heal, and die a premature death. I asked her how she dealt with death, with meeting it on a daily basis. She told me that when she was a child, her parents didn’t want her or her siblings to be afraid or unfamiliar with death, as it is an integral part of existence. The family made regular trips to the cemetery, visited dying relatives, attended funerals, talked openly about death. Seems like a healthy approach to me, but imagine if I took my two munchkins on a field trip to the cemetery. I would probably get a call from school after Show and Tell time.

Then there was the Alaskan throat singer talking about her childhood on NPR (years ago). She said that her songs may sound mournful (they do chill you and put you in a profound melancholic trance), but that this is not a bad thing. There is no need to fear it. Just as there is no need to fear death. As a child, she would watch as an elk getting butchered and skinned, gutted, and prepared for various uses in the household. There was no horror or disgust associated with the process. Rather, it was natural, raw, red, and familiar.

When you find out that somebody has died, you’re shocked: “Oh no…how could that be? Is that really so?” But imagine a culture where you could easily say, “Well you know, that’s how it goes.” In such a culture, I imagine the pain of losing someone close to you would remain, but at least the shock would be lessened, knowing (and I mean really knowing, not just in theory but in practice, having seen it first-hand many times) that it was bound to happen to them, and will happen to you. There would be less fear of death, and a healthier understanding of it.

Trying to avoid platitudes, I will say that I think we here in continental America could use some of that education. As it stands now, I can only talk normally about death with my five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.

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