My fiance and I had been planning to skip town this weekend, stay in a hotel for a few nights in some rustic destination and toodle around antique stores and historic sites. However, I wound up with a job interview on Saturday morning (it went quite well, thank you for asking), so although we missed our Saturday waltz lesson anyways, the 'weekend trip' idea was scotched.
As a gesture in its direction, however, we drove out to Harper's Ferry on Sunday afternoon. It's a fascinating little town (population now: 340 - population 1860: 3,000) with a quite comprehensive collection of restored buildings, historic ruins (canals and bridges prominent among them) and a most excellent cemetary.
I love cemetaries. I'm not sure why, I just always have. When I was a child being visited upon an unsupecting Europe, I could spend hours wandering around a good cemetary. And I still can. My fiance, luckily, indulges this predilection of mine, and thus we have spent a great deal of time on each of our Maryland Country Romps squinting at eroded headstones and stepping over sunken cenotaphs. Unsurprisingly, the East Coast has a great deal of rather good cemetaries, as measured in age. One might think that Europe would obviously go them several centuries better, but in Europe they have this tendency to toss dead people out after fifty or a hundred years, so only the elites get to rest ad infinitum. In America we have so far tended to leave dead people alone, except in cases where building a house over them provides for a really spooky movie, or if we can somehow turn them into zombies which make for really good opponents in a moral absolutist sense.
But I digress. I love cemetaries. As a result, I visit a lot of them. Whenever I am in a historic (or not-so-historic) town, it's always "where are the dead people at?" And, as a result of this, I have developed rather advanced views as to what is good and bad in a funeral monument. Since most of you think very infrequently, if at all, what you'd like by way of a tombstone, let me enlighten you from the perspective of a cemetary hound.
Bigger is better. Hey, you're dead. Once everyone who knew you is dead, unless you are famous, the only thing you have going are those things you left behid with your name on them. Sure, you should have written a famous book, or painted a famous painting, but you didn't, did you? And now it's too late, deady-o. But anyone with a reasonable amount of dough can plunk it down for a big hunk of concrete with their name on it. If you get a little flat marker with "I.M.Dedd" on it, no one will care. But if you have a huge vault-like edifice with "I.M.Dedd." on it, people will wonder about you for centuries, if not millenia.
Think Solid. I'm not saying that frills are bad. On the contrary, frills are good. But you have to consider erosion and vandalism. Remember, just because you are dead, the assholes of the world don't go away. On the contrary, they will probably multiply in your absence. So go for heavy, solid, well-connected things. Don't get little spires - get those round balls on pedestals. Don't get lots of little poetry on a headstone - have your name carved in letters two inches deep. And avoid sharp edges, not because they will hurt someone, but because they will eventually break off.
Enclosed Space. This is a mixed blessing - the problem with enclosed space is that it allows assholes to work their moronic wills on your monument with less chance of being spotted. On the other hand, I can tell you from experience that any inscription you put on an exposed surface, as compared to a surface with a wall and/or roof sheltering it, will wear away in a tenth of the time. Rain is your enemy! So remember point two, and have a nice solid crypt with heavily carved in writing on the inside. If nothing else, homeless people will think fondly of you.
Family Plots. Admittedly, it means sharing visitors' attention. But I can tell you that a nicely arranged family plot with a time-eclectic assortment of stones merits much more examination than individual stones. Even if you don't have such a plot, if you put up a nice large monument for the family and save some extra space, not only will you get top billing, your descendents (or cousin's descendents, or people with the same last name who don't have much money) will move in later. Anyways, it's another excuse to splurge on size and nifty baubles.
Writing. When people (who don't know you, remember. This is all apropos to the vaguely interested bystander two hundred years from now) walk by, they will read most if not all of your inscription. So make it legible, make it interesting, and have enough of it. Poetry is a classical standby, as are quotes from famous people. But it doesn't really much matter - it's your tombstone, so you get vast leeway in your ability to grandstand. Humor, deep thoughts, ranting - it's the last, best place you have to tell people what's what. And they will never be able to contradict you.
Okay, that covers a fair assortment of good things to have. A thick, solid stone with as many interesting, hard to destroy baubles as possible. Lots of writing, in deep etched letters. Make it interesting, and your name will be on people's lips long, long after you are gone. (And remember - at some point in the future, we will be able to clone folks from DNA fragments. If you have a grave marker that lasts, they can get you. If not...)
Now, here are some things to avoid. Almost all of these are brought to you by the modern funeral industry, which is your enemy. I can't stress enough how the funeral industry, by virtue of working on things people don't want to think about, have screwed us all over in the interest of lining their pockets. At all costs, find a place to be dead that involves doing what they want you to as little as possible.
Flat Markers. Tombstones should stand up. In the interest of riding mowers (no shit!) most cemetaries are insisting that new stones be flush with the ground. In face, the disrespectful fucks are going so far as to lie down old stones, so they can save the two seconds of mowing around them. Hell, it's not like the stone is there so that you remember that person. Assholes. I hate them, and when I am the Leader all the people involved in laying down old tombstones will be first up against the wall. Anyways, there are basically two options for dealing with this. The first, and best, is to get an actual vault, so that you have a building to be put in. The second, and perfectly acceptable one, is to find a cemetary that does not have this requirement. There are still a few of them, and no one says you have to be sunk in any particular piece of ground.
Cheap Stone. Not much to say here. If it erodes away, so does your chance for people to think about you. Get the cheapest coffin you can, but don't skimp on that monument!
Amateurs. We were visiting the town of Bowie the other day, (for whatever reason, they pronounce it Boo-EE, out here, not Bow-EE like the Lord intended. Hey, people on the East Coast are strange) and went by the cemetary. A number of headstones had inexpertly carved inscriptions, where the letters wavered and wiggled as though a child had traced them on before carving. And, honest to God, one of them had 'Born' spelled with a backwards 'N'. I was embarrassed for the people under those stones. Do you want people to mock you for centuries to come? I thought not. Get someone who knows what they are doing.
So you get the general idea. Of course, by this point, you are undoubtedly asking 'But what about you, Ra? What sort of grave are you going in for?' Of course I have thought about it. First, I'm going in for cryogenic freezing. Hey, it makes sense to me on all levels - I'm gonna be dead at any rate. If I never get brought back, I'm no worse off. And it's not like I will need the money for something else. My kids are gonna get a good rearing and a good education and if they never get a dime when I die, I'm still content I've done my job. My money is my money, and once I have taught them to fish I'm keeping my trout to myself.
But, were that not an option, I'd want to be reduced to a skeleton and then frozen in a big block of glass. Honest. I was in Fuerstenfeldbrueck, a German town (could you guess?) outside of Munich, and while visiting the convent there I encountered its very first abbott, who kicked off in the twelfth century. He was in the church, behind glass. He was in his nice robes, with lace gloves holding the finger bones together, and was in plain view of the entire church, watching the current priest give mass, the devotees sing psalms, and the child parishoners fidget and pick their noses. It was great. So I decided that I could go for that. Just dress me up in an Armani suit and dip me in a 3x2x6 block of glass.
I'd have to be somewhere where vandals would have a hard time getting at me, of course (although solid glass is very, very tough, given enough time assholes will destroy anything), so I'd probably just have myself put up in the lobby of my charitable foundation. Or maybe an office building. But somewhere people could get a good look at me every day, with a little plaque and maybe some inspirational quotes at my feet.
That's called 'thinking outside the casket'.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra