For my MSW program, I took a class called Grief and Loss. (Right? Note: if you are unwilling to process some serious personal shit, don’t go to school for Social Work.) In that class, I shared that I feel an emotional distance from cemeteries because I have no graves to visit. I have lost several loved ones; the only problem is, if they are buried (most people in my family are cremated), I don’t know where. I’ve never thought that mattered for the purposes of my mourning.
In fact, years ago, when my husband and I were walking through the cemetery by our house, we started to talk about how we would like our bodies to be taken care of after we die. At that time, I was quick to say that I couldn’t imagine being buried. I was quick to say that I didn’t see why anyone ever wanted to be buried, why people spent so much time making plans for their remains, as if it mattered. “I won’t be here,” I remember saying to him, “so do what you want.” I said it flippantly. I knew no one could disagree with my logic.
At that point, I hadn’t thought much about my own experience of death. I hadn’t taken personal stock of where I’d buried and how. In fact, it wasn’t until that graduate class that I really took that inventory. As we watched a video about cemeteries, I kept making all sorts of judgments about their purpose, who would use them, and why, without having even tried to experience them the way they were designed to be experienced.
So one day that summer (I opted to take Grief and Loss during tolerable weather for mental health reasons), I walked straight to that cemetery near my house. I’d gone running through this cemetery dozens of times, had picnics by the little pond, explored the different sections organized by both family and year. I was very familiar with the layout of the place. This day that I went, I walked with a purpose, a direction, in a way that I imagined a mourner might walk if they were going to visit a grave of a loved one. I took a few turns, got some distance from the main entrance, found a section of graves with all different headstones, all with their deaths dating back to the 1800s. Abandoned graves whose mourners had all, by now, found their own place in the ground somewhere. No one was going to come see these graves anymore, I estimated, so I picked one to adopt.
The headstone said SAMUEL in big letters. It was old enough that it was probably carved out of something other than granite. It was a little way away from the path. I’ve never stepped on grass in a cemetery before: I’ve never had any reason to, and I always thought it was an irreverent thing to do. I chose SAMUEL’s grave because I thought it would challenge me to treat the cemetery differently than I ever had before.
I walked to the headstone and knelt down, the way I imagined I would if it were actually the grave of someone I knew. Because that was why I had come. Three years ago, I lost my mentor, my friend, and my external locus of self-confidence. A man—let’s call him William. I went to his funeral, I took books from his personal library, I have a recording of his voice reading a commencement address. But still, I managed to not get much in the way of a healthy mourning experience. Instead, I spent more than a year mourning him by eating too much, by giving up my teaching career, by not leaving my house when I didn’t have to, by sleeping a lot.
So I pretended SAMUEL said WILLIAM, and I let my body do the rest. My first instinct was to reach out and touch the cold stone, to feel its nearness, its solidity. Once I did that, it was as if someone had pulled a lever and opened a trapdoor that had been holding back a waterfall of emotions I thought I had processed. I talked to William as if he were there, as if it were his casket and body six feet beneath my knees. As if I could speak out loud to him about my pain, about my loss of him, about the past three years I’ve struggled along without him.
For years, I swear I knew the five stages of grief and what it felt like to come through to acceptance on the other side. For a non-zero amount of months, I could say William’s name without feeling a knot forming in my stomach. I could read those books from his library without wetting their pages with tears. I figured that meant it was over. And I knew that the ability to visit his grave would not have helped that process run more smoothly.
After this odd experience of giving it a go, though, I’m not so sure. What’s more, I’m not sure that I care. William is gone now and has been, and I know that there are other people who cared about him when he was alive who have “moved on” “more” than I have, as well as people who have “moved on” “less.” Sometimes I see a picture of him or catch a note in the margins of a book or paper, and my heart trips over itself as it remembers how distant he is, remembers that remembering is all I can do now. Grief and Loss taught me that, really, I know very little about grief and loss, and I sure as hell don’t know the “right way” to mourn.
My father was a no-nonsense kind of guy in most things, and his eternal resting place was no exception. We were blessed in his last days to have the opportunity to ask him what he wanted and for him to calmly discuss the plans with us as if we had asked him what he wanted for dinner. My dad, like most of the people in my family who have gone gentle into that good night, wanted to be cremated. He didn’t want a headstone, he didn’t want an urn, and, in his own words, he “couldn’t care less” what we did with his ashes. As I sat on the edge of his hospital bed, typing everything he said into a Word document (eerily titled “What Daddy Wants.doc” and now saved in an inconveniently prominent place on my desktop) I chuckled to myself. My father knew. The way I knew. He knew what he wanted and he knew what we, his survivors, would need, and, even to his last, he didn’t much care to examine whether he was assuming too much. At least now I know where I got it.
My dad came to the conclusion that he no longer wanted to live. In so many ways, he and our family were blessed by the ease and speed of his passing. We’re going to have a memorial service at the end of the month, we’re going to spread his ashes in some of his favorite places in the country, and then that will be that. He, like William, will be nothing but memories.
But SAMUEL helped me to see that I could contain some of that hurt in a geographical place if I wanted to. Even if my dad didn’t see the purpose in that, I think I do now. Graves are meant to be knelt on, to be interacted with, and if they’re going to be there anyway, taking up space and likely being a scourge on the environment, I might as well make use of them.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.