We had just buried a relative of my wife’s. Because the grave was near my grandfather’s, the same grandfather our four-year-old son was named after, we went to show him the grave and pay our respects. Our son seeing his name on the stone and knowing he could get a rise out of us, if not his late great-grandfather, lay down on the grave and crossed his hands as if flying into himself (that great phrase from Bill Knott’s poem.) As if dead at four years old, our little son stretched out in front of a gravestone with his name on it. Of course he got a rise out of us.
I’ve never visited the grave of someone I love. Loved. Except if I happen to be in the cemetery for a funeral or an unveiling.
Unveiling: the Jewish custom of waiting until a year—or in these modern times, less than a year—to place a stone on the grave and “unveil” it, marking the end of the official year of mourning.
I don’t know where my grandfather “is.” He’s now not a human being but a human was-ing. Whatever the great mystery of life and death, his body is certainly not alive, and, all these years later, is likely not much more than bones. What’s Yeats line about an old man being “a tattered coat upon a stick”? Forty years after his death, if my grandfather’s body is anything, it’s all stick, not coat.. Strange then, to “pay our respects” in this particular place.
I know the funeral plot is really just a placeholder, a focal point for our memories. Easier than looking everywhere and nowhere. Like the bomb victim whose stone said, “Rest in Pieces.”
There is a grave my kids and I used to visit in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton. Hidden in a “small grove north of the Scented Garden in Hendrie Park,” the headstone says: Martinmas. A good horse. And a sire of good horses.
That’s me. A good horse. And a sire of good horses. I want to be a good father.
Martinmas was a race horse “foaled 1896—died 1916” owned by William Hendrie who owned the land where the horse was buried. Hendrie raised draft horses for his cartage business as well as race horses, for, well, races. He was proud of Martinmas’s accomplishments and so he erected this large headstone.
Apparently, it’s not clear if all of Martinmas is buried beneath the headstone or just his head. Why separate the head from the body? Is this a mind/body thing? Did the jockey want a souvenir? Was it a forerunner of the Godfather, the horse’s head in someone’s bed?
A rhyme I’d recite for my kids when they were young:
1-1 was a race horse
1-2 was 1-2
1-1 1 1 race
and 1-2 1-1 2.
It’s traditional for Jews to recite “The Mourners’ Kaddish” each morning in synagogue for a year after a parent dies. Yit-ga-dal v'yit-ka-dash sh'mei ra-ba. One should say this Aramaic prayer with other people. A minyan. Traditionally (because, you know, misogyny) a group of ten men. Sometimes people ask, “Who will say kaddish for me?” I know my father-in-law has wondered this and I think it might end up being me. I live closest to the synagogue. It’s not something I believe in, but it is something I’d do in some form and for some length of time because it was important to him.
John Cage said that "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." I think it’s also true that you learn something from doing almost anything many times. Just by waking up early, going to the synagogue, reciting the same Aramaic prayer, surely something will be revealed. I think it’d be relational and I’m not talking God. All that time in a particular place with others, there for a variety of complex reasons themselves. And performing this ritual for someone else I’d expect a wide range of feelings—from sorrow, frustation, resentment, boredom, love, bewilderment, a sense of understanding, realization or unreality, a sense of connection or disconnection with the tradition of my ancestors.
In 1898, Martimas won the race for the best two-year old horse in America, the Futurity Prize. With the prize money, William Hendrie paid for a wing of Hamilton General Hospital to be built in Martimas’ name. Strange to be treated in a part of a hospital named for a horse. Since he won some significant races, and sired some significant racing horses and thus left a significant legacy, Martimas (including both his head and his body) was eventually given a place in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
There’s a headstone near where my wife’s grandparents are buried. The inscription doesn’t say the usual “beloved husband and father, much missed grandfather,” but something to the effect that the guy came second in the city chess championships, first in checkers. I always thought it was quite sad that this was what he wanted written on “his final resting place.” And he wasn’t even first in chess. But when I mentioned it to my son, he made the good point that I really didn’t know anything about the guy and I was being “judgy.”
What would I want on my stone, what would I want to be remembered by? I don’t think I’d rely on an inscription on a headstone for that. Or even to be in one place. I’d rather be spread out like that joke about the bomb victim, resting in pieces. Bits of me everywhere—in lakes, forests, fields. And those who knew me would remember me in their own ways. As a husband, father, maybe one day, grandfather. As friend, colleague, co-conspirator.
In his poem “After Thomas Hardy’s ‘Afterwards,’ David W. McFadden reflects on how he might be remembered. “After I’m dead/….
a child will pick up
a piece of dog shit
& taste it
& someone will say Look!
McFadden was a man who
would have noticed that.”
I don’t imagine what it might be like after I’m dead. For me or for others. Maybe my family and the people who knew me might look at things in the world and be aware of how I might have thought of them. “Look!, “ He “would have noticed that.” Maybe my children would think about our times walking through forests, on the shores of lakes, among shopping carts, in parking lots. I don’t think they’d remember what I said but more how I might have said it, or the kinds of things I might have been apt to say, or think. What I might have radiated in their presence about being in the world. And concerning our relationship.. It’s not so much who I was but how I was with them. Or maybe who I hoped to be.
I resist the notion of thinking of a posthumous summing up of one’s life, the Coles Notes of who you were. The Yelp review, the Goodreads commentary. There was some humor in the life. There were some animals in the life but towards the end, I got lost. I did not understand any of it. To me this life was quite good in the beginning and middle. End...lost me totally. Two stars.
Certainly others might do a summing up of your life after you’re gone, but I don’t believe in thinking about it prehumously or of living for how you might be remembered, other than trying to not be the kind of person people are glad to see the coffin-lid of, or must speak about in psychotherapy.
Likely, I’ll end up in a patch of ground somewhere, though I’d prefer not, but laws being what they are, and also because my wife would like us to be in a discreet place. And by discreet I don’t mean out of public view as we’ll be spending eternity making the xylophone with two backs with our naked bones. I mean in a single identifiable place. My wife wants us to be buried together, embracing for eternity, a cat’s-cradle of bones. And of course I want our eternity to be together—however time and space might turn out. Like that passage of strange and loving beauty by John Berger:
What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together...With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.
All very lovely, but it does lead me to wonder if the plan is to die together. Or, after one or other of us dies, the grave is opened and, according to a precise IKEA-like assembly plan, our bones are fitted together into this final and eternal embrace and then the lid of earth put back on like a patch of hair after neurosurgery.
Do I think about the living archive of my now adult children, how they embody my bodiless legacy in the sense that more than just being a sack half-filled with my DNA, something of the way they live and who they are is because of me? Though of course it is somewhat true, I don’t consider this, except perhaps when they’re feeling badly and I wish I had better prepared them for adversity. Or gave them supercharged “very satisfied with life” genes. Otherwise, their qualities are their own, even if I can identify some aspects that perhaps connect to me. I might have given them the violin but they learned to play it—violin here as both an expression of values as well as a physical inheritance. Nature. Nurture. Stradivari.
In breeding horses, breeders consider personality as well as the physical. Certainly Martimas’s progeny Kelvin, Shimonese and Slipper Day were race-winning animals, a fact attributable to both mind and body. In 1911, the Daily Racing Form wrote that Slipper Day, owned by Hendrie’s son, John, who became the 11th Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario was “the fastest filly ever bred in Canada.”
Incidently Martinmas’s sire was Candlemas, his dam Biggonet, the “mas” suffix in Martinmas inherited from his sire. I’ve often wondered about the tradition of naming your children after you. Or with names that refer to you. John and John Jr. Or Johann Sebastian, Johann Friedrich, Johann Christoph. In Iceland, surnames are build from the father’s name. Björk is Björk Guðmundsdóttir which is Björk, the daughter of Guðmundur. In traditional Jewish naming, it works the same way. In synagogue, I’m Gershon Ben Nachmann (and now v’Miriam.) Gary son of Norman (and Myrna.) I think it’d have been years (more) of therapy if I’d named my kids after me though. In Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, it is traditionally very bad luck to name a baby after a living person, but the proper thing to do to name them after a dead relative. Hence my son was named after his great-grandfather. I do like the idea of continuity. Not that there are qualities that my son shares with his great-grandfather, just that he’s connected with his ancestors, if only by this custom.
There’s a Jewish tradition that rather than leaving flowers at a grave, you place a stone on the gravestone. That’s some imitative magic there. Stone on stone. And there is something elemental and solemn about using a stone. Nothing says gravitas like stone. And the stone stands in for earth or ground. Where the loved one is. And time is long and enduring as stone. And long as the remembrance of the dead. And more enduring than flowers, those fussy, bright living but not for too long things.
Another idea is that the stone keeps the soul in the world. Hey, you want to go to paradise? Sorry Charlie, I’m plunking a rock on top of your grave to hold you down. Another idea is that it stops golems and demons from getting in. Think I’ll go bring evil to this dead soul. Oh no. There a small rock in the way. Guess I’ll go to Washington instead.
Of course—because Judiaism—there’s also a language reason. Apparently the Hebrew word for “pebble”—tz’ror—is the same as the word for “bond.” According to The Star of David Memorial Chapel’s website, “When we pray...we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that we have been there, and that the individual’s memory continues to live on in and through us.” My word for pebble is my bond.
I have placed stones on gravestones. I’ve also lifted stones, cupped them in my hands, felt their heft, that they are made of the earth as well as archetype. Something bigger. Whenever I lift a stone I think of history, of those who have died, perhaps buried beneath headstones, of those who have been lost. Sorrow turned to stone? A petrified ritual? Charles Simic evokes the mystery of a stone in his famous and mysteriously named poem, “Stone”: I have seen sparks fly out/When two stones are rubbed/…Just enough light to make out/The strange writings, the star-charts/On the inner walls.”
When I lift a stone, I think of those who have no headstone, those who are buried beneath stones only in unmarked earth. The parents of that great-grandfather after whom we named our son, my great grandparents, were shot in a small town outside of the city of Panevėžys, Lithuania during the Holocaust. Through archival research, I found details of their death in a registry. The name of the town. The approximate date. My grandfather was told about their murder years later by a drunk guest at a Bar Mitzvah in South Africa, came home and told my teenage father. Simic: “Let somebody else become a dove/Or gnash with a tiger's tooth./I am happy to be a stone.”
In the end, it’s not entirely up to me how I am remembered. I’d be gratified if people kept reading—or began to read—my writing and listened to my music. I’d be touched if some thought of me that "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm." or even, "He was one who had an eye for such mysteries." (Hardy, “Afterwards”) But it’s more about this life, while I am alive, trying my best to be a good horse, and not to remembered as a sire of good horses, though my children are that, but a good sire. Friend. Husband. Person. I don’t expect any of us to win a horse race.