by Julia Sneden
My husband and I recently sat down and had the talk about final plans. What might have been a maudlin moment turned out to be a laughter-filled reminiscence of other people’s disastrous or felicitous choices for funerals and the disposition of remains. Somehow we worked our way into something close to agreement about our own end-of-life wishes. Woven in and out of the conversation were memories of cemeteries we have visited, not only of places that gave us the heebie-jeebies, but also of a few we found to be graceful, peaceful spots.
Although I might prefer to have my ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean or strewn in the high Sierra, John (who is a dedicated genealogist) seems to need a tombstone, complete with his name, my name (including my maiden name), dates of birth and death, and possibly “son of” and “daughter of” appended. Our sons tease him about designing a fold-out for his tombstone, giving the record of his Snedens and Mackeys back to Adam and Eve, but he just smiles and says he’d be happy to do whatever it takes to make things easier for some far-removed descendant who might decide to search out his or her roots.
He has in mind how much trouble he had in figuring out his family’s genealogy, and I, who have crawled through a few ancient cemeteries with him and taken rubbings from tombstones too crumbled to read, am not about to argue.
So it looks as if my romantic notions of dissolving into the waters of the Pacific (or in the Sierra snow melt) will give way to a more tangible descent into the ground. I figure I can live (or, rather, die) with his plans if it makes him happy.
If I go first, I won’t be around to quibble with whatever the stone cutters are told to carve on my gravestone. If I die second, I can always do what my great grandfather Kelsey did when his wife went home to her parents and died there: There are two gravestones in his plot in Geneseo, NY, one for him and one for her, except that she’s not buried beneath hers. Below her name and dates, a note is carved in the granite: “Buried at West Perry, NY.”
Perhaps if I chose to go with my original thoughts, the add-on to my tombstone could be a shorter: “Scattered elsewhere.” Or maybe I could borrow the idea of a mischievous friend who once sent me a postcard saying, simply: “I’ve moved. Now try and find me.”
My feelings about burial in California involve my love for my native state, not the need to be near family. I had a cousin who worked for Forest Lawn in Los Angeles, and having visited him, I would rather, excuse me, die than be planted there. Besides, I’m a northern Californian, a very different breed from southern Californians. Each group thinks the other isn’t true California.
The ashes of one of my grandmothers lie boxed and drawered in a columbarium in Oakland. In her day, getting a permit to scatter ashes was an intricate procedure, and I don’t think she (the most retiring of women) wanted to bother anyone. I suppose her solution makes sense, but it’s not a place one would want to go and visit and wander amongst the niches. As Gertrude Stein once said about her native town: “There’s no there there.”
Other relatives are buried in San Jose, in a large, well-kept cemetery. I’m sorry, but there are just too many plastic flowers and well-scrubbed stones there for me. Besides, when my Great Aunt Martha died, the staff asked my grandmother which of the empty spaces on either side of her mother’s grave should be opened. Since Grandabbie had allowed the ashes of a destitute friend to be buried in the plot on the left, she reminded them that only the right-hand grave was empty.
“Oh no,” they replied. “Since Miss. W’s remains were ashes, we just tucked her in with your mother. Both sites are therefore usable.”
My grandmother was distraught. “Poor Mother!” she said. “All her life she had to share her spaces with the others in her large family. Couldn’t she just once have had a small place all her own?”
My husband’s family plots lie in and around the metropolitan sprawl of New York and northern New Jersey. The sheer numbers of graves in urban cemeteries make them less than appealing to me.
Of all the cemeteries we’ve seen, a few stand out favorably in our memories. The first is in Geneseo, in western New York State. My mother and her paternal ancestors lie among the older graves tucked into a corner of a large cemetery. She and her parents, aunts and uncles, are marked by a row of polished red granite markers near some lovely, old trees. Three years ago when we buried her there, the autumn colors were a blazing metaphor not lost on any of us. Not far away, however, the newer part of the cemetery lacks both trees and character. It’s just row on row of monuments with a gravel road twisting through them.
Curious about Great Grandfather Kelsey’s stone that directed us to his wife’s grave in West Perry, we were glad when a cousin drove us over to see it. There beside a road that bears her father’s name, Lucretia Parsons Bacon Kelsey lies next to her parents in a small, rural cemetery. She died of consumption in 1868, when her youngest child, my grandfather, was six. I recently came across a stack of letters she wrote to her sister after she and her husband moved west to Wisconsin, in1852. Despite her homesickness and the roughness of frontier life, the letters are filled with her vibrant spirit. For some reason, I find myself thinking often of that little cemetery. I suspect that if I lived nearby, I’d be a regular visitor.
The last cemetery lies in Palisades, NY, a small village at the top of the Palisades (cliffs) of the Hudson River. For almost 200 years, my husband’s relatives ran a ferry from Sneden’s Landing to Dobbs Ferry on the eastern shore. Most of his direct ancestors moved up the hill from the river after the American Revolution. The family spread out throughout the area, living on both sides of the NY/NJ state line.
Palisades Cemetery is ancient and hard to find. The only access lies through a gate on the back side of someone’s driveway. There is no place to park nearby. In our many visits, we have never run into another person inside the gate. This spot gives new meaning to the phrase “rest in peace.”
A few of the old tombstones are made of the same brownstone that gave its name to the style of many New York houses. It is not a particularly durable stone, and weather has effaced many of the inscriptions. The most historic of them, the stone for Mary (“Mollie”) Sneden, crumbled so badly that a few years back it had to be replaced by the local historical society.
Mollie was the daughter of Jan Dobbs whose ferry gave its name to the town on the opposite shore of the river. She married Robert Sneden, and they moved to the west bank of the Hudson in the mid-1700’s. Apparently, Robert farmed while she ran the ferry and kept a tavern. She is rumored to have carried Martha Washington, complete with liveried servants and coach, across the river during Mrs. Washington’s journey to join husband George and his army in Cambridge, MA.
Mollie lived to the age of 101, and there are many, many stories about her. My favorite contends that once at dusk she stepped outside her tavern and fired a shotgun into a flock of passenger pigeons flying overhead, dropping “several hundred with the single shot” (not impossible, considering that passenger pigeons migrated in flocks estimated to be a couple of million birds). No wonder the birds went extinct. I’ll bet the patrons of the tavern enjoyed many nights’ worth of pigeon pie.
It seems to me that if one must take up space in a cemetery, it might as well — for the sake of those who will visit it — be a place that holds some interest beyond merely the dust of the dear departed. Palisades offers that, plus a certain independent spirit that appeals to me. Tidiness and regimentation have never been high priorities in my life.
Our children, of course, will have the final say no matter what arrangements we make, and well they should. We will be beyond caring, and they have the right to do whatever will help them to feel comfortable. Having settled on the spot, we have no further instructions to give them except to keep things simple.
After all, who needs more than shade and trees and a touch of history?