Saturday, July 26, 2008


Photo courtesy of Laurel Scriver. Bob's name and dates are not as worn as the light makes it seem.

Not long ago Bob Scriver’s niece stopped by the cemetery in Cut Bank. She got a surprise. During WWII Thad Scriver, her grandfather, bought four graves which was how he thought of his family: mom, pop, two sons. No provision for daughters-in-law or descendants. This made more sense when both sons were in the army and men from Browning were being killed. The graves were in Cut Bank because that was the “white town.” Of course, now that has less meaning that it did then.

By the time Bob Scriver died, his mom, pop, brother and sister-in-law were occupying the original four graves, so two more were bought, head-to-head with the four originals. The four graves had been marked with modest flat stones for ease when mowing. When Thad died, his wife (Bob’s mom) installed a “family stone,” which simply had “Scriver” on it, at the head of the four graves. While nice enough, it is hardly elaborate.

Bob Scriver’s wish was that he be buried next to his beloved horse out at the Doane ranch and he’d made Boyd Evans promise to come back with his backhoe to bury Bob there. Bob’s fourth wife, Lorraine, would have none of that! (I was the third wife. Lorraine was a common-law wife as nearly as I can tell, if that makes any difference. She was with him longer that any of us.) Lorraine, having had a dubious and outlier background, was determined to capture respectability and inclusion, so she insisted on the Cut Bank cemetery.

The only other people involved in the decision were Bob’s remaining three grandchildren by his daughter, who had died much earlier. She is buried in Anacortes, Washington, where she died, and her mother, Bob’s first wife, is interred in the same grave. There are two headstones on that grave, one for each woman. The only time the grandchildren saw their mother’s casket was when the grave was opened to bury their grandmother. Bob’s two granddaughters by his son don’t appear to have been consulted. Bob’s contemporaries, his cousins, were not even told he had died until I contacted them in the course of writing his biography.

The grandkid’s and Lorraine’s solution to the problem of markers was to cut Bob’s name in the Scriver family stone and add a “foot stone,” though Lorraine in particular had visions of a statue. One thing they never thought of was noting that Bob was a WWII veteran, since that was long before they were born. The consequence of that oversight is that every Memorial Day when the Veterans of Foreign Wars mark every veteran’s grave with a small United States flag, they put one on Harold’s grave according to the information of his service on his stone, but never put one on Bob’s grave. For a few years I drove out early on Memorial Day and reminded them. I threatened to tape a photocopy of his portrait in uniform onto the headstone.

When Bob died, I decided not to come to the funeral or be involved. The grandkids plainly wanted me excluded and, as for Lorraine, need you ask? In Spring I came to find his grave and though “Crown Hill Cemetery” is small, I stopped at Bob’s lawyer’s to see where I should look. The lawyer was clearly not happy to see me -- had rather forgotten that I existed -- and went into a long explanation of how Bob had chosen to be buried near the lawyer’s family plot because his family and the Scrivers had been such wonderful friends. News to me.

Within a year a second lawyer had captured the attention of Lorraine, eliminated the first one, and was re-arranging things to suit himself and his bank account. He paid no attention to Bob’s grave. The family stone is at the head of both Bob’s grave and the space next to it, which is empty. It’s unclear who has ownership of it. (The niece believes she does.)

My idea was that when they cleaned out the taxidermy walk-in freezer under the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, which contained the bodies of more than a few of Bob’s beloved pet animals so that “someday” he could make their portraits in bronze, they ought to bury the pets in the grave next to him. Since he couldn’t be next to his horse, maybe he could be next to his springer spaniel, his bobcats, his fox, his badger, and his ground squirrel. One of my friends advised me that he thought others would consider this blasphemy, since cemeteries are hallowed ground. He was rather confusing a cemetery, which is simply a burial ground, with a graveyard, which is part of church property.

The surprise Bob’s niece got was that Lorraine’s name had suddenly appeared on the gravestone. She died in 2002 in Vancouver, B.C., where she was born (she was always a Canadian citizen as was her first husband), was cremated and cast into the Pacific Ocean. (So was Bob’s second wife. An interesting fantasy about what the two sets of ashes might say if they met.) Maybe her family sent or brought some of her ashes to be buried here, but they never came to visit while she was alive so I don’t know why they could come five years after her death. I suspect this was the work of the lawyer attempting to strengthen his ties to the estate. Bob paid him in bronze castings and he rents a room at the Russell Auction every year to try to sell them. So the memorial for a common-law wife is an empty grave. Maybe the lawyer dances on it -- I don’t.

The symbolism of grave locations and styles is still strong among us in theory, but not always well thought-out in fact, not least because when people have just died, the survivors are stunned. No one can enforce their wishes beyond the grave. Multiple marriages make it even more problematic. Bob’s first wife’s parents are buried in Conrad, where the cemetery is in a cool forest of evergreens (shelter belt trees, really) watered by a special ditch. Her brother is also buried there as well as his two wives. As far as I know, no family members go to visit.

When my own mother was close to death, we asked her what she wanted. She had buried my father’s ashes in the grave of his parents in Portland, Oregon. We knew her own father was buried in one of a double plot in Roseburg, OR, bumped out of the marital double plot by his daughter who was killed in a car crash as a teenager. The other grave is empty, and we asked if she would like to be there. “NO!” she said with some vehemence. “Just put me somewhere that there’s an evergreen tree and a lot of daffodils!” In the end her ashes were interred next to my father’s and both their names were added to the grandparents' headstone. Later I went to visit the graves in Roseburg and saw that her father’s grave is near an evergreen tree and daffodils bloomed nearby.

In the end graves are not for the dead but for the living: avaricious, yearning, indignant, or whatever else they might be. Unless it’s wartime, the symbolism of graves fades for most people. Everyone moves all the time now and many families have totally lost track of where graves might be.

My own instructions are cremation and dispersal without interment -- just let the wind take me wherever it goes. I find that a comforting idea. But I do occasionally go by the Scriver graves -- in fact, as far as I know, no one else did until that niece paid her recent visit. Not even the Montana Historical Society who grabbed Bob’s estate and has kept it warehoused ever since, a kind of interment. And I suspect that lawyer doesn’t put flowers on either Bob’s grave or the empty grave.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You got a chuckle out of me with this posting. Although my own family have been burried in various locations over the centuries, my own thoughts are that the practice is ludicrous. Thanks for the tale.
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