A grave story.
Heavy words. A lot to ask for. Even more to promise.
I think care should be expected. Taken for granted. As a society, we’re respectful to those that came before us. Many cultures won’t even speak of the dead, refusing to utter the names of lost loved ones. Ever. Not us. We use markers, memorials and monuments to honor our ancestors. A grave in a quiet cemetery where those left behind might visit. A place to go and mourn, remember, or imagine. To pay our respects.
That’s the way I learned it, at least. I’m fairly old. Generation X is my proper pigeon hole.
Barely. My big brother is a Boomer. We probably earned some extra etiquette by growing up next to a cemetery. We had free reign, allowed to play in and around the old graveyard as we pleased. The only rule was respect. Just like visiting anyone else at their home, we were expected to be on our very best behavior. We had the Fear back then, acting as if our parents were watching even if they weren’t. We would tread carefully between the graves, never stepping on the sacred earth that covers the occupant. Ashes, dust or what have you. Whether we knew them or not. A soul was a soul. A person, just like us.
Spiritual concepts for young minds.
We were fortunate to have five generations of my mother’s family represented there, just over the short fence at the end of our field. Mom always planted early flowers on her father’s grave, and then her grandmother’s down on the lower side. We had to walk past the great and twice great grandparents, but they never got flowers. No color. It seemed unfair to younger me, I reckoned that she hadn’t actually known them, just their family roles and whatever tidbit facts her grandmother may have passed along. The logic was fuzzy. Mom’s great granduncle fought in the Civil War, and he got flowers, while her great grandfather in the next row did not. Extra care and respect for fame and notoriety? Perhaps it was more a logistics issue. The family tree gets wider in a hurry.
The World has turned to a point where I had flower duty this year in our family cemetery. Along with the regulars I included the grave of the eldest, my 3rd great grandparents, settlers of the original family homestead. Partly because I had a few flowers left over, but mostly because I had just never seen flowers on their graves. I found it satisfying, and I’ll try to include them from now on. All of them.
That’s not really true, I can’t get them all. At the 3rd great level I have 30 more grandparents, spread out over several different countries. I probably won’t see half of them in my lifetime.
I can surely take care of my kinfolk in our family plot. With a little focus and drive, I might even get to all of those buried on our old country road. Possibly all that are at rest in my hometown. Many will still be missed. The 4th and 5th great grands are unrealistic, yet no less deserving. Life was more challenging for the elders, their sacrifice should be given the highest honor. It’s totally unjust. Maybe they have already enjoyed their era of flowers and proper care. It’s just passed them by.
The uncaring wheels of time will eventually grind everything back to dust. All of it. There’s no escape.
I’m old enough to have noticed an ominous trend where cemeteries aren’t getting the same attention that I’m accustomed to seeing. Stones are falling and breaking, never to be repaired. Some smaller plots are overgrown and unkempt. My concern reached a boiling point on a recent visit to Saccarappa Cemetery, one of the oldest burying grounds in Westbrook, Maine.
My wife turned me on to this place, she grew up on Brackett Street, right nearby. I could chuck a good rock betwixt the two sites. This graveyard was a local hangout for the neighborhood kids, with a hidden beaver pond big enough for a swim on a hot day. She knows I have kind of an obsession with old cemeteries, and she remembered some ancients at Saccarappa. That was the Native name of the original settlement here. A waterfall on the Presumscot River, actually. “Falling toward the rising sun.”
Later the settlement would take the name of a pioneer, Colonel Thomas Westbrook. A Veteran of the Militia in the French and Indian Wars, Westbrook built two successful mills on the river, including the first paper mill. The paper industry would play a constant role in the Town’s success, still active after almost 300 years.
I had time to kill one day before an appointment, just enough to swing by the old Saccarappa Cemetery. My wife was correct, it was exactly my kind of place. I notice the flags first. The Veterans. I scanned to find any flags missing, torn or fallen. I would try to make them right before I left. I always keep a few in my car.
I wouldn’t have time to see everything, I’d settle for a quick walk through. A preliminary. Names jumped out at me. When I spotted the first Harmon I broke into a slight grin, it’s a little game I play with myself. No matter how small the cemetery, or off the beaten path, it seems that I can always find a Harmon cousin. It’s a big name around these parts. More regulars from my family tree would soon appear.
Anderson. Brackett. Boothby. Libby. Elwell. Partridge. Not just distant cousins, I found first cousins, and then actual grandparents. Different family lines, all converging in this hidden jewel of a graveyard. How had I never found this place before? All of this blood, yet I was finally drawn here by my wife’s previous alleged truant and delinquent behavior. It really is a crazy World.
It wasn’t only family, I recognized so many names. Names shared with streets all over this City. Brackett Street, where my wife grew up, named for my cousins buried here. The Pennells are here. My great grandfather Gallant raised ten boys and four girls on Pennell Street. Another stone’s throw away.
Pride’s Corner. King Street. Brown Street. Warren Avenue. All names from this sacred ground. Conant Street, named for the first European to settle Saccarappa, way back at the beginning. His descendants lie here. So many street names popping up, I would later do the research and match them up. In a quick non-scientific cross check, I came up with 60 local streets sharing names with Saccarappa gravestones.
These folks actually built this City. Brought it to life, and gave it the strength to endure. To prosper.
Colonel Westbrook himself would probably reside here, but he took a different route. It’s a cute story. The ambitious and prosperous forefather would lose everything in later life, dying deep in debt. Allegedly shafted by a close business partner, the Colonel was crushed. On the night he died, his family spirited his corpse off to an undisclosed location before creditors could claim his body. Apparently they had every right. It seems heinous. He was buried on his sister’s farm in an anonymous, remote grave.
His family would keep this secret for the next 232 years, if you can imagine that. 9 or 10 generations of resting in peace. In 1976, our Nation’s Bicentennial, the family joined with the local Historical Society to verify what they knew to be true. Colonel Thomas Westbrook was buried in the back yard.
His grave is now properly marked, on the most recognized farm in the area, at Smiling Hill.
Back at Saccarappa, my newfound excitement would fade as I perused the place, like your stomach flips once the carnival roller coaster crests the big hill. From the high to the low in a screaming blur. A hard slap. Worse, a sucker punch.
This beautiful congregation of history is falling into ruin. The more I saw, the more my stomach churned. Now the roller coaster hit the big barrel roll after just finishing off a greasy sausage sub. With onions. Ugh. Gravestones are in shambles. From big cracks to chunks falling out, or broken to literal bits and pieces. Leaning, listing, sinking, or fallen. Face down, face up, or left leaned against hardier stones. Some missing altogether, empty bases. Pitiful. The grass had been mowed recently, the only plus, but there were bright white cigarette butts scattered every few paces. Weeds and overgrown scrub all around the edges. Anger and sadness wrestled for dominance. It was a close match.
Anger pulled a brilliant sprawling reversal and came out on top.
The fence. A barrier pushed me over the edge.
Not the fence itself, it was fairly new as far as graveyard surroundings go. Handsome chain-link showing much more silver than rusty brown. The problem was the location. Someone ran a fence down the face side of the whole front row, barely a foot in front of the stones. You can’t read the ones that remain. I’m fairly thin for an older guy, and there was no way I could contort my lanky frame into that space.
Granted, when the fence was new, maybe a person could stand outside the wire and be able to read the writing. The name, at least. Planting flowers in the normal manner would still be impossible. Today there’s no standing outside the perimeter. It borders the driveway of a home, with a little strip of overgrown hornhackle in between. Judging by the size of the trees in this no-man’s-land, I’d guess the fence came into play about 40 or 50 years ago. I picture a constant stream of angry, grieving little old men and ladies, each as disgruntled as I felt at that moment.
How could this happen? Who could possibly approve of such an abomination? Suits. That’s who. Protractor-packing engineers drew some lines on a site map. The surveyors then came and triangulated the pencil lines into little stakes with ribbons. Those men should have noticed. Made the connection. Head scratching. Maybe it should be a little further from the headstones? It wasn’t their problem.
I won’t hold it against them. They came to drive stakes. The location had already been decided and approved.
I’ll tell you who I hold responsible. Wait for it… The fence crew. Really. The laymen, the low men on the totem pole. How can it be their fault? It wasn’t, technically. It was those half-empty suits, way back at the top of the trickle-down. Degrees of separation. Deniable accountability. The laborers did the actual deed. The blood is on their hands, the sacred dirt stained their shovels.
That fence crew had to stand right there, amongst those weathered gravestones. Digging postholes, being careful not to dig too deep. Trampling flowers, in my little vision. That might be overboard. Regardless, if a different Me had happened upon that fence installation, It would have stopped short. Violence doesn’t solve anything, but I’m imagining the sound of rattling pipes. Raised voices. Hats being waved around, Skippy grabbing his shovel with both hands in a defensive move. I would resist the urge to give his chest an angry straight arm shove, only because we’d be in such close proximity to the Elders. Production would grind to a halt. I’d be gently kicking gravel back into the freshly dug holes.
Maybe only long enough for a phone call to their boss, and his follow up call to the local Police station, but my voice would have been heard. Probably in handcuffs, pleading with the arresting officer on our way to the hoosegow, even though I clearly had the right to remain silent. I would get to say my piece. Express my displeasure. He would address me as “Mister Would-be Lawyer” in a friendly, joking manner.
He would understand my point of view. We would be fast pals. I’d have an involuntary sleepover, and he’d leave me with good advice about proper channels and methods of complaint.
Chances are pretty good that the fence would have still gone up, right in the Elder’s faces.
I did end up getting exactly one laugh in that situation of frustration and despair.
One sick, sinister ironic snort that I would muffle out of respect. The point of this presentation.
Carved in stone. Quite a few stones, actually. Definitely added after the fact. Off center, different script. Some just had the initials etched in, P.C. Others had iron markers, most missing the stake part, just a medallion leaning or lying nearby. It took a moment to sort out in my thoughts.
At some point, people apparently paid good money for the promise of everlasting upkeep.
I notice a busted slab of a headstone jammed diagonally under the evil chain-link, stretching the wire. Sporting not one, but two lucky Perpetual Care medallions. Pretty matching rust stains under each, it had been stuck there for a while. They didn’t seem to be working.
My mind immediately brings up the types of character that might have sold such a hollow vow.
Perhaps it happened during the age of carpetbaggers and scalawags. Opportunistic traveling salespeople. They had Snake Oil to remedy any ailments troubling you, but if you were beyond help, perhaps you might be interested in some Perpetual Care insurance. Yes, Ma’am, in the event of your unfortunate and untimely demise, I can personally guarantee that your grave will always be taken care of. While the other plots around yours will eventually crumble in overgrown despair, yours will be mowed, trimmed and maintained to the highest standard. In fact, if you sign up today, I’ll personally make sure you have a fresh bouquet of flowers every Mother’s Day. Well, myself or my descendants, of course. Yes! Forever!! I give you my word.
More likely, it was some sort of unscrupulous undertaker, the eccentric character from so many Steven King movies. He looks like a black and white photo even when you see him in living color. Taking advantage of poor grieving families at their most vulnerable time. Upselling. Yes, Sir, I realize that you may be on a tight budget, but I feel that your sweet departed wife would be much more likely to find eternal peace in this fancy mahogany coffin. I didn’t want to mention it, but she approached me just last spring at Mrs. McKenny’s funeral and remarked about her lovely casket, this very same model. Extra pillows. Satin lining. It’s really beautiful, and makes a bold statement. Of course, Sir. It sounds like a lot of money, but this only happens once in a person’s life, her final chapter. It can’t be redone. Sleep on it. I’m sure you know what she would prefer. I’ll tell you what, Sir, because I like you, I’ll throw in our Perpetual Care Plan for just a few dollars more. Perpetual Care. Yes, Sir, it’s guaranteed, as long as your plan stays up to date. We stick a little marker beside her stone, and she gets preferred treatment. The Deluxe Job. Her gravesite will stand out like a shiny penny after surrounding Souls are long forgotten and trodden upon. Forever, yes, Sir. I give you my word.
(It was difficult to write about this shady shyster, as the only funeral director that I know personally is a man of extraordinary character and kindness, a leader and true pillar of our community.)
One more possibility, maybe it was in the era of the early Ponzi schemes. The classic pyramid. Yes, Folks, this is going to be the next Big Thing. Perpetual Care. Think about those words. You can assure permanent manicured attention for your final destination, your last little piece of real estate. Forever. Your family’s eternal resting place. Eternal. Who’s going to take care of it, after we’re all gone? After your kids have all passed on? Will you have great grandkids? Will they care? That’s the million dollar question. Forever is a really long time. Perpetual Care is the answer. You all need to get in on the ground floor, this will blow up once it leaves this room. You need to think about whom else you might want to share this with, the deal won’t last long. In fact, If you get 4 of your friends or family members to sign up before Monday, you can get your own plan for half price. Sell 8 plans by Monday, you get yours absolutely free. Eternal peace of mind. Guaranteed, as sure as I’m standing here before you. I give you my word.
How can you put a price on that?
You can’t. Really. You can’t sell promises. You can’t buy promises.
I guess technically the insurance industry would disagree, but that’s a whole different deal. Somewhere there’s an agent at a desk with an email who will actually keep the promise, and write you a check.
Crypto currency? Good one. That's a story for a different day. I'll stick with what I know.
Perpetual Care sold the idea that future generations will somehow be accountable for empty promises made way before their time. Unrealistic, to say the least. I’m not sure just how they hashed it out, or what they really expected to happen. They got the money up front, I’m pretty sure about that. As I looked around the decrepit cemetery, I slowly shook my head at the whole concept. The fancy stones with the proud extra policies appear to be facing exactly the same neglect as those that opted out. I was disgusted, but not surprised. After all, there was a sucker born every minute, back in the day.
I have an idea. The next time a stranger calls my cell phone because they’re concerned about the status of my expiring car warranty, I will ask them about Perpetual Care. If anyone knows, it’ll be them. I’ll bet they can even hook me up with a plan.
The bottom line is this. Perpetual Care sadly appears to be an oxymoron.
Nothing is perpetual. Think of the changes we see in a year, or a generation.
Forever really is a long time.
The key, the big C, is the one you can’t barter or guarantee.
Somebody has to Care.