Before Bob Scriver died, he asked to be buried alongside his beloved horse, Gunsmoke, nicknamed “Gunnysack,” on his Flatiron Ranch west of Browning. Boyd Evans buried the horse with a backhoe but there was no headstone. Bob didn’t want one either. The ranch itself became a reserve managed by a cooperation between Nature Conservancy and the Blackfeet Tribe.
In actuality, Bob was buried in the Cut Bank cemetery where the white people go to be buried just off the reservation. He is “with” his family. His headstone, which was ordered by his fourth wife, Lorraine, is for a double plot but she is not buried there. Rather she was cremated and cast into the Pacific Ocean off Vancouver Island where she spent part of Bob’s estate buying property and building a house she lived in for only a short time before dying. So that means Bob “Sleeps Alone.”
He didn’t like that much, so I suggested to Boyd that when the big walk-in freezer in the basement of Scriver Studio was finally cleaned out and unplugged, we take all the stiffened bodies of pets he could not bear to bury -- the bobcat, the badger, the springer spaniel, two foxes -- and put them in the empty grave. Unfortunately, this was considered a heresy, because in white-people terms, cemeteries are for honoring people. The families are fancied to be whole, sleeping and waiting for heaven where pets can’t go. (What kind of heaven is that?)
The family, which by then consisted of Lorraine and three adult grandchildren, chose a modest headstone but added a footstone. I wondered if they were trying to make sure he stayed down there. None of them remembered that Bob was a veteran of WWII and didn’t put it on the stones, so on every Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, the organizations that place little American flags on the graves will put one on Harold’s grave (Bob’s brother) but not on Bob’s. At first I fussed about it, went to check, made them add the flag -- because it’s an important sign of honor for the dead to mark them as veterans. But I gave up. By now the people who remember Bob are considerably thinned out and the young’uns never knew him. He would have hated that grave anyway. I think the locals have a conviction that artists can’t be soldiers, that “artist fellers” are weaklings and oddballs.
So what do we have here but the mishmash of different styles and beliefs and status symbols that every set of relationships must wrestle with when it comes to something as major and final as death? The person has no true say in the matter and the answer is urgent. Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, wrote a memorable essay on the problem when he observed it in a SE Asian country he was studying. The community was in the process of conversion between one religious system and another -- it hardly matters what the two of them were -- and the two had different burial customs that could not be reconciled. So they did nothing. SE Asia has a warm climate with a lot of life forms meant to decompose biological tissue. Anthropologists are not supposed to participate, but in this case he did out of mercy and practicality. His “mixed” ceremony worked and life went on.
Now, of course, the planet is in the throes of a giant kaleidoscopic cultural mozaic full of dilemmas and contradictions. Mixed marriages are the least of it. (They used to be solved by just forbidding them.) What does a sperm donor’s child do on Father’s Day?
My mother used to say, “People die pretty much the way they have lived.” So how did she die? Holed up in her marriage house where outside the window alongside her bed grew the thriving wisteria she brought from her mother’s house as a bride. (Her father was so angry that he wouldn’t attend the wedding and forbade her mother to attend either. But somehow she got that start of wisteria.)
She refused her pastor and stiffly resisted the hospice workers her doctor ordered, but she loved her doctor, both because he was Japanese (she said her fav childhood book was “Tales of Genji” -- surely a bowdlerized version!) and because he was from an important Portland family. She wanted to be socially significant, which was an idea she got from her parents, esp. her father.
So what to do about the graveside service she asked for instead of a church service? I had already done my version of extreme unction at her time of death. My brothers stood at the bedside with me and didn’t interfere but were bitter afterwards because they felt it was only for me. (It wasn't.) The older of the two brothers made all the other decisions. The younger one was brain damaged and hardly processing what was happening.
The first decision was cremation -- we agreed on that -- she had told the hospice people she would be buried with her husband who had been cremated and interred on the graves of his parents. By the time she died, she had been widowed a long time and had many grievances about my father, but it was the socially “right” thing to do. Earlier she had always said that she wanted to be buried “by an evergreen tree with daffodils growing under it.” This was an unconscious description of her father’s grave, which had a space beside it. I asked her if she wanted to be buried there. “NO!” She had always been at war with her father. One of those love wars.
I went for the daffodils: a hundred of them. Luckily it was the season. They were cut, but so was she. She had been Christian; I was not, but UU’s are inclusive. I asked a colleague who tilted towards Christian to do the actual liturgy. It was lucky because what we had envisioned as maybe a half-dozen people turned out to be a double-dozen: former neighbors, fellow teachers, remnants of family. No one from her own family except we three children. It went smoothly, a little too long as is usual, until afterwards. There was no reception. My brother had planned a brunch at a restaurant for the few people, but was not prepared for so many. It was awkward. I always say that sometimes liturgy is chess and sometimes it’s roulette. This was roulette. We threw in our chips and scattered.
My mother died as she lived. Not quite prepared to recognize her many connections, not really engaging her religionists, locked into family patterns of both love and resentment. And she passed all of it on to her three children. One brother died. One brother is not speaking. I write about it all. Let the chips fall where they may.