Monday, April 17, 2006

"My death; is it possible?"--Jacques Derrida

I recognize some who come here regularly have a more personal relationship with death than they might like, but I still found this article significant for what it says now about our very human reactions to what Wittgenstein called "the one experience of life that is not lived through."

"The mausoleum says, 'I'm really significant in this world, I think I'm really significant to my family,' and this is one way to communicate that to the community," said Nancy Lohman, an owner along with her husband, Lowell, of this and several dozen other Florida cemeteries and funeral homes.

Mr. Peck, 87, an Atlanta native with a sonorous voice and a laconic manner, framed a similar thought more modestly. "It began to occur to me that I did not want to be in the ground covered with weeds and whatnot and totally forgotten," he said. "I don't like the idea of dirt being dumped on me."

Six feet up and not six feet under is increasingly the direction in which people want their remains stored when they die, representatives of the funeral industry say. In addition to custom single-family mausoleums, community mausoleums for both coffins and cremated remains are also gaining popularity; in classical or contemporary styles, these often have room to hold hundreds of niches for coffins or urns.

The Cold Spring Granite Company, among the country's largest makers of cemetery monuments, sold 2,000 private mausoleums last year, up from about 65 during a good year in the 1980's. Prices range from $250,000 to "well into the millions," said Michael T. Baklarz, a vice president of the company.

The development is perhaps logically to be expected of those at the leading edge of the baby boom generation, which forms the bulk of the market. The progression seems natural for the folks who gave the world blocklong, gas-hogging sport utility vehicles and lot-hogging 40,000-square-foot suburban homes.

"It's in keeping with the McMansion mentality of boomers," said Thomas Lynch, an author and funeral director in Michigan. "Real estate is an extension of personhood."

The market for the custom structures is greatest on the coasts, although exclusive estate sections have recently been set aside for private mausoleums at cemeteries in Atlanta, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

Some mausoleums echo the temple of the goddess Fortuna Virilis in Rome. Some are hefty, rusticated stone barns. Some have more square footage than a good-size Manhattan studio apartment, their interiors fitted out with hand-knotted carpets, upholstered benches and nooks for the display of memorabilia. In late 2004, a Southern California family ordered a mausoleum with room for 12 coffins, 20 cremation niches and a patterned marble vestibule.
Several observations can be made at this point, but perhaps the most poignant is: of all the places no one in modern society wants to go except under duress or extreme need, my observation is that the hospital ranks second; the graveyard ranks first.

At one time graveyards were next to, if not surrounding, churches. The graveyard was the churchyard. And the church, of course, was the center of the community. But even the church I served that had a family graveyard which had been open for over a century, ignored it. Some years before I became pastor of the church, the Boy Scout Troop the church sponsored cleaned up the graveyard as one boy's Eagle Scout project. Years later, people still told me how overgrown it had been. But nobody in the church had cared, despite the fact their families were buried there (albeit relatives, for the most part, not mothers, fathers, siblings). And even elderly children grow tired of tending private cemeteries (I know of at least one here in Houston, in a parking lot that was a family farm only 50 years ago; within my lifetime, in other words). The sad truth is that when the dead are gone, the living soon stop remembering them.

It wasn't always that way, and it doesn't have to be that way. Memorial Day was once "Decoration Day." People went to the graveyards for picnics, to dine among the dead, family and friends and relatives. Death then occurred in the front room, and burial was a quick matter. Now I know people who don't even want the funeral of their loved ones in their church; they want the idea of death to be kept carefully circumscribed from their life. Which, given our longer lives, may be a good thing. But death, like illness, is something we try to keep away from our daily lives as much as possible. We go to cemeteries for graveside services, and even then only if it is close family, and even then are glad the service is brief. And we hardly ever go back. So who is going to tend a mausoleum with carpets and displays and comfortable benches?

The denial of death is not peculiarly American; and it isn't a unique property of baby-boomers to want to leave something to posterity. But it is a function of money, and of the illusion that money and power can be used to work our will irrevocably on the world.

But who can say how we will face the end? I have tried to recognize that I won't go underground, that the premature burial that so plagued Poe and 19th century America (and was a reality, as the comatose were mistaken for corpses) won't be a reality, and what is buried won't be aware of its burial. I would prefer to be cremated, and my ashed kept in a shoebox in my daughter's desk. But when the time comes, might I prefer a mausoleum to my accomplishments? Might I wonder, to the end, if my death is really possible?

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