A number of years ago after reading Nancy Mitford, I discovered the entire Mitford family and the writings of younger sister Jessica, or Decca, as she was known. I found her to be remarkable because she was so smart and wrote so well in spite of having had the limited education designed for proper young ladies within the English aristocracy during a time when women’s education was considered a waste.
Jessica ran away from home and eventually ended up in California’s Bay Area, integrating Oakland and becoming a muckraking journalist. She tackled a lot of issues, but one of the most charming is The American Way of Death (available now as The American Way of Death Revisited).
The first time I read this book, I contacted a friend who was a funeral director. “Are you familiar?” He: “She’s a radical!”
She was hardly militant, but her research was in-depth, and the book was met with such success that she was asked to speak to a number of groups, exposing the claims and promises of an industry, which deals with survivors at the most emotionally trying times of their lives.
She exposed the over-reaching claims of embalming, and she addressed the perpetual care culture of a number of chain cemeteries. In fact, she named the nearest cemetery to where I currently live as one of the guiltiest, and even though Revisited came out years ago, I cannot forget her claim whenever I drive past those white statues standing out front.
I have friends who have family members buried there, and I’ve been to the cemetery several times. There’s not a high population of dead celebrities, but the traffic going through the place is as if four recent Oscar winners and an overdosed Grammy singer are sprinkled about the Reverence, Radiance and Remembrance sections like parsley on an omelet. The cemetery culture encourages family members to drive out time and again as if the deceased haven’t died, but have simply moved to a basement studio with a mountain view.
I’m planning to go to science if they’ll have me. I’ve never liked the idea of being buried. How can I trust they won’t throw me in too early and I wake up? Being buried alive is a far greater fear than anything I could have thought of regarding cremation, and the thought of all those parties at the cemetery, which I’d be missing, seems utterly cruel.
To clarify what I mean about parties at the cemetery, I’ve been witnessing a phenomenon I’ve only seen in Los Angeles. I never went to cemeteries in San Diego, and I’ve only seen this strange occurrence in Los Angeles County, and in particular at this burial ground near my home. Whoever came up with the idea of picnicking on a grave? Yes, at Hollywood Forever Cemetery near Paramount Studios, you can bring lawn chairs and blankets to watch films while laid across graves of Hollywood icons, but sprawling across a row of graves for a family outing brings good judgment into question.
Growing up, I didn’t visit graves unless I were there for another burial. I was unaware that somewhere across the country people were spreading blankets across graves to lounge with their dearly departed.
Then there are the holidays. You have to see the place decked out at Christmas with candy cane fences, garland rope, artificial snow (it is Southern California after all) and Christmas trees. It’s enough to get the house decorated without the pressure of adorning a burial spot. At that point the dead are more demanding than they ever were in life.
There is a delightful Yiddish word, which perfectly describes something that is overdone and extremely tacky: ongepatshket. And I have seen more ongepatshket on a row of graves than Disneyland uses on Main Street during December. I’m okay with a poinsettia for each headstone in the family plot, but Santa and his animatronic reindeer belong in a shopping center rather than a final resting place.
There are other holidays to celebrate at this burial ground on the side of the freeway. The sight of an old RV parked near a family sitting around a hibachi on Maw-Maw’s grave led me to conclude that Mother’s Day, while a day of remembrance, is more casual than Christmas, Valentine’s and Armistice Day. It makes me wonder what decorations are allowed for Halloween. I would hope they frown on creepy hands appearing to dig themselves out of a grave.
I’m bracing for reader feedback from those who think I’ve been mean and uncaring, but as the local cemetery continues to expand and lay new sod at a rapid pace, I’m comfortable knowing that I won’t be taking up space when the time comes. I don’t need a marker so people can find me. Better to have no marker than to ask, as I did on a previous visit, “Who were Benny and Estelle Hagerty (1898—1946 and 1902—1989, respectively), and why did they choose to be buried two feet from the curb?
© 2015 by Patrick Brown
Visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1 to learn about my books “Moral Ambiguity” and “Tossed Off the Edge.”