The humanity of gravesites

My dad wanted to be cremated when he died. He didn’t want this, God knows, because he denied the resurrection of the body, the one reason the Church gives for disallowing cremation. He did it because he wanted to stick it to the funeral industry. He figured that cremation would be cheaper. 

But when the time came, 16 years ago, to make the decision about a final resting place, dad wasn’t there, and two factors came into play that he hadn’t considered. As my mom and I listened to the pitch of the mortuary salesman, it became clear that the costs of burial or cremation, thanks to the machinations of that industry, were about the same — at least in California. And as the one Erlandson living 2,000 miles away, I knew that I wanted a place to return to. I wanted a grave site to visit. 

So 16 years later, the first time that I was in Los Angeles on the exact anniversary of dad’s death, I stood with all but one of my six siblings, as well as various spouses and children, in a half circle around my dad’s grave during a steady rain. We told stories about him, and prayed for him — each in our own way. We were soaked to the skin and warmed by the embrace of family and a father’s spirit. 

Since he died, I have never failed to visit his grave at least once during any trip I made home. Even I am a little surprised by this ritual of devotion. After all, his spirit is much more alive in the house I grew up in. It is lined with the books he treasured, the row after row of volumes by Victorian writers, the countless paperback novels he read. 

He would go through phases: Reading all of John Fowles, then all of Pat Conroy, for example. He read everything, and he read daily. We always believed that his vast knowledge and his remarkable tolerance grew from the many people he had met and worlds he had visited in fiction’s realm. 

His spirit lives also in all of us who survived him. Any family gathering feels both diminished by his loss and heightened by our memory of him — how he would have enjoyed the laughter and the stories, the debates and the jokes. 

But I find myself always drawn back to that little plot of grass. As always with real estate, it is all about location: It helps, somehow, that he is buried only a few hundred yards from where we lived. In fact, his grave is in a spot of the cemetery where one of my brothers and I would sneak in to explore when it was only sandy soil as yet unprepared to embrace the neighborhood’s fallen loved ones. 

I know that the tall, generous, learned man who shaped my ideas of manhood and God and love is no longer there. That divine spark that so animated him was gone the minute that the machine flatlined into a piercing whine in the hospital ICU.  

Yet our race has a deep need to mark with stone and wood the passing of those we love. The idea that they would disappear in a tsunami or vanish in an explosion is deeply unsettling to us. 

It is all about place, and now I understand the idea of El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when Hispanic families gather in cemeteries for picnics and celebrations. It is the same reason we have the grand marbled monuments encasing dead popes in St. Peter’s Basilica or the humble grave plots of black sharecroppers hidden in the kudzu-strangled forests of South Carolina. We want a place to return to, a place to remember a life. 

The stone of his grave will not be rolled back till history’s end, I know, but for now I can stand there under the wet skies, missing him and loving him still. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.