Friday, January 29, 2016

365 True Things: 306/Death

This morning we paid a visit to the cemetery of the small town of Magdalena, New Mexico. What brought us there immediately was a geocache (yes, I found it), but I always enjoy visiting cemeteries and seeing how people are remembered (memorial markers, flowers), how old people were, what their names were, and the general siting of this, their last resting place.

Today when we arrived, a burial was going on. It was a small group of mourners, maybe fifteen or twenty. As we entered on the opposite side of the cemetery, the final words were being spoken, and soon several of the attendees picked up long-handled shovels and started attacking a huge pile of orange dirt. Over the half hour or so we wandered among the graves, they pitched all of that dirt into the hole holding the coffin.

The pile of dirt is almost gone
Me, I'm reluctant to approach people—strangers—who are deep into their own lives, whether the event is happy or sad. So I stayed away. Melony, though, was following her artistic nose and ended up taking some pictures near the funeral party. One of the men engaged her in conversation, and she learned that the deceased was 39. Melony and I had wondered about the fact that the family seemed to be doing all the work of covering the coffin, and speculated whether they had also been in charge of digging the six-feet-deep hole. The man verified that, yes, the family was responsible for the whole thing. He also said that since the nearest mortuary was several dozen miles away, they didn't bother with embalming. Into the ground the body went, as is. The man said the women in the group were closest to the deceased, that he was the young man's uncle.

The event, plus all the graves I passed by with headstones indicating a life of only forty, fifty, maybe sixty years (though a few women—formidable matriarchs, I have no doubt—lived into their eighties) made me think about death and what happens at the end—or more specifically, what I want to happen to me at the end. Cremation, for sure. But beyond that? What about a service? What songs would I like to have played, or readings read? What about doing something with the ashes? Wouldn't it be nice to follow this business of life all the way to the other side, and make sure (as long as my survivors comply with my wishes) I'm sent off in a way I'd like?

I happened to bring on this trip a book called A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if It Were Your Last, by Stephen Levine. One of my writing buddies mentioned it, and the notion of spending a year thinking very committedly and, I hope, positively, about the end game just makes sense to me. This effort includes making sure your affairs are "in order." Which, no doubt, is more important than the farewell party. I haven't had time to open the book yet, so I'm not sure just what-all it will ask me to consider, but it's one of the first on my list for when I kick work out of my life.

We later learned from the town marshal that the young man (who the marshal said was only 34) had died of heroin, plus diabetes. I suspect that or a similar story is all too common in these parts.

Some of the grave markers in the Magdalena cemetery were barely legible, or else had been written over by hand, and surrounded by dry scrub; others were carefully tended and sported photos (one even displayed a birth certificate) and colorful decorations. There is no water, so living plants exist only in terms of what grows in the ground: junipers, little yuccas, struggling trees. Though when the monsoon comes, I imagine the place turns green.

One large enclosure with several graves was clearly well attended to. The most elaborately adorned grave in the enclosure belonged to a twelve-year-old boy; above the grave was a wooden shelter, decorated with many kinds of lights, powered by solar panels. We ran into a man in town and told him we'd been up to the cemetery; he said, "You should see it at night!" I expect he was referring to that grave of the beloved boy. Now I'd like to swing through Magdalena one night and see the lit-up graveyard. It must be quite a sight. But . . . it'll have to be on another trip.

Addendum: The next day while driving, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour, and what should it be about but . . . death. In particular, creating a new narrative of death. Excellent food for thought to add to Levine's book.


  1. Death….. the great equalizer. The community in a grave yard… there's a quiet respectful in place that transcends any differences. I like your field trips.

  2. This is giving me things to think about when it comes to death and dying:

    1. That is a fascinating, and beautiful, and beautifully told, story. It reminds me of some other Australians, parents of a good friend of mine, who approached their deaths with utter pragmatism and calm. They didn't take their own lives, but they wouldn't have been against it, not at all. There's something about those Aussies. Some of 'em, anyway.