Saturday, April 14, 2012

What do you want on YOUR tombstone?

Pizza commercials aside, ten years ago I thought it unnecessary for me to have a tombstone, or a grave marker of any sort. Kind of selfish of me, I suppose, since I spend so much time photographing, reading, and researching other people's tombstones! I just figured, cremate me and throw my ashes to the winds (or better yet, pour them in the gas tanks of cars owned by people who really pissed me off in life!).

I’d also felt that there was a bit of vanity associated with cemetery memorials, especially the gaudy mausoleums. Would I mmortalize myself in stained glass, for instance? I’m a lot of things, but vain isn’t one of them. However, I just finished reading Douglas Keister’s novel, Autumn in Summer, and I now am thinking that maybe I would like a tombstone.

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Keister is a photographer of cemetery monuments, who happens to also write eloquently and prolifically about them. In fact he has thirty-nine books to his credit! His glossy coffee-table book, Going Out in Style catalyzed my interest in photographing cemetery objects about a decade ago. In his current book, a mystery novel,
Keister incorporates many of the things he's learned about cemeteries in his travels. It's quite interesting reading for the taphophile.

There’s an interlude in the narrative of Autumn in Summer where the protagonist states to a cemetery worker how he doesn’t want a tombstone when he dies. The worker tells him that while it doesn't matter whether you get cremated or buried:
"You need to leave your name behind somewhere. Cemetery's just a spot where you're better assured permanency. While there might not be much left of your physical remains, seeing your name on a piece of stone gives your descendants a better sense of who they are. We need to leave our name somewhere. People need to come to a place to remember us, to connect to us, to connect to themselves, to connect to the past and the future... People come thousands of miles just to see a name, to make that connection."

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I am reminded of the situation involving my research on the discarded tombstones from Philadelphia’s Monument Cemetery. My writing has inadvertently put me in touch with many people who are looking for a trace of their ancestors. When the cemetery was condemned and demolished in 1956, thousands of bodies were removed and reburied in mass graves in a suburban cemetery (Lawnview Cemetery in the Rockledge section of the city), without so much as a plaque indicating their presence. Their thousands of headstones were dumped into the Delaware River, to be used as a foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge. So for people looking for physical traces of their ancestors, there are none to be found. I guess I don't want this to happen to me.

So I thank Mr. Keister  for allowing me to think of headstones in a different way. As he puts it, a mechanism that will allow me to leave a tangible trace of my existence so that loved ones, friends, and curiosity seekers have a place to land when they want to think about either me or their own mortality.

So what would I like on my tombstone? Keister says,"You only get one chance to make a last impression." Maybe I'd like some weird sort of statue? Or a photo of myself on a simple stone? How about an epitaph? Maybe some pithy phrase or some strange symbols I’ll  make up just to mess with people’s heads? Something like this, perhaps:

Given my penchant for trespassing, maybe an appropriate engraving for me would be:

Ed Snyder  1958 - ____
“Forgiveness is easier to get than permission.”

References and Further Reading:
Douglas Keister on Facebook