A couple of summers ago, my wife Linda and I rented a house for a few weeks on Long Island. The house sat on a quiet street, a short stroll to the center of the village, a ten-minute bike ride to the beach. There was, however, an unadvertised amenity: an old country graveyard was right around the corner. Every morning after breakfast, I went over there to jog. In the evening, when my workday was over —I was writing a book about what makes for a meaningful life— I returned to the graveyard to unwind. I always made certain to keep to the lanes separating the plots. A good thing, too, as I later came across a piece of advice in an Anne Sexton poem: “Take your foot out of the graveyard, / they are busy being dead.” When the workday was over, I’d return to the old country graveyard, where I again watched where I stepped. Everybody was still busy being dead.
Those routine visits to the old graveyard marked the first time I’d ever been in a cemetery when there wasn’t some grim reason to be there. It wasn’t long before the experience was unlocking all sorts of insights. For example, it’s been said that to focus on life we must deprive death of its strangeness. Daily jogs through a neighboring graveyard can make death seem no more momentous than, well, a walk in the park.
That was just the beginning. One late afternoon, after meandering through the tombstones, reflecting on names, dates, and inscriptions, I stopped to linger under a sign that read No Plantings, Foundations or Monuments Without Permission. A thought came to me: I hadn’t been tip-toeing around old bones these past days, I’d been browsing something akin to an open-air reading room. Beneath my feet was an anthology of sorts, a golden treasury of life stories that stretched out over a couple of centuries, hardly a genre unrepresented.
There were tales of valor. A Revolutionary War casualty along with his five wives. An eighteen-year-old seaman third-class killed in combat in the South Pacific; and his father, a U.S. Army corporal who survived campaigns in China, Burma, and India. He died at age ninety-five, outliving his son by over a half-century.
There were tragedies of pathos and despair. Spalding Gray, the author and monologist, rests in the old country graveyard. Two months after he disappeared, suspected of jumping off the Staten Island Ferry, Gray’s body washed up along the East River in New York City. His tombstone reads “An American Original, Troubled, Inner-Directed and Can-Not Type.”
There were all but forgotten stories. Weathered rocks with neither a date nor a full name, brown stones not much bigger than a pumpernickel. Someone who’s now identified as S.E.N rests next to someone now identified as C.T.N, who in turn lies next to “Father, 1884, & Mother.” Whether these stones were kept deliberately spare out of humble intent, or because stonecarvers charged by the word, is an answer lost to history.
There were stories I’d even known personally, some better than others: journalist Nelson Algren; editor Clay Felker; novelist William Gaddis, whose books run to close to a thousand pages but whose tablet is inscribed with only his dates and a single word: Papa. And there’s Bob Sklar, who taught film history at NYU, and who was thoughtful and soft-spoken, a good friend, and along with me and a few others, a founding father of Rotisserie League Baseball.
But most of all, there were love stories galore. “Partners Forever” is chiseled across a tombstone. On the left side, a man’s name and dates. On the right, another man’s name but as yet no dates. George Balanchine, the ballet master, is buried not far from that stone. Not far from Balanchine is Alexandra Danilova, the celebrated ballerina who went to school with him in St. Petersburg. They lived for seven years as woman and husband, never marrying because Balanchine was married to somebody else.
One day—it was now about halfway through our stay in the rented house—I returned from a pleasant stroll through the graveyard and made a beeline for the kitchen. Linda was about to bite into a mozzarella and sun-dried tomato panini.
“Hey, great idea!” I announced. “I’m thinking we should be buried over there in the old cemetery.” Linda barely looked up, as the proposal sounded no more solemn than if I’d told her I’d thought of a nice place for dinner that night. “Nothing over-the-top,” I said. “No hulking mausoleum or gigantic obelisk, just a double-wide plot with a tastefully designed stone that’s big enough for both of our names, dates, and brief, carefully chosen sentiments. I’ll write yours, you write mine, we can draft them in advance, and each of us, of course, retains copy approval. What do you think?”
If Linda was at all taken aback, it wasn’t because I’d hurled the prospect of mortality into the room the instant she was about to bite into a sandwich. Nor was she stunned at the prospect of yet another relocation. By now, she’s perfectly open to trying out new places. Before we landed in Chicago, where we now live, we’d moved around a lot, albeit in connection with work, not death —New York City; London: Knoxville, Tenn.; the New York suburbs; Madison, Wis. Linda’s routinely adept at settling in and making new friends, not that such skills would be necessary were we to put down final roots across the street.
What surprised her, though, was how concrete the proposal was. While we don’t entirely shirk the subject of death, we do have a way of dancing around it. We’ll occasionally buck each other up with expressions of mutual devotion that leave us sounding like bratty third-graders at a sliding board: I want to go first! No, I want to go first! While on the surface wanting to go first seems selfless and noble, going first is the lousiest thing you can do to someone you love. Going first means it’s the survivor who’ll have the privilege of suffering.
As for long-range, concrete plans dealing with the hereafter, we had none prior to coming to Long Island. No, I take that back. We discussed it once, while hiking through a redwood forest, chirping back and forth about whether we’d rather have our ashes scattered at sea or dumped in the woods, those Big Sur woods being as good as funeral woods get. Linda, who grew up on a small island off the coast of the Bronx, said she’d prefer the water. I opted for a woodlands scatter, having never loved sailing or the prospect of being cast adrift. But now, without warning, just as she was about to take a bite, came the all-too-specific prospect that she’ll wind up buried in an actual cemetery, under an actual stone marker, in a specific, actual town where we have a few friends but no kinfolk, and where we’ve spent a grand total of less than a few weeks in our entire lives.
It all begged for a bit of processing, so we agreed to take a day or two to think it over. We sat silently for a few seconds. Then she looked over and asked: “So tell me, which part of this plan is so appealing? Is it the burial-in-a-cemetery part? Or is it the having-a-marker part?”
A really, really good question, that.
Over the next couple of days, I mulled over Linda’s excellent question: was it the buried-in-a-cemetery part that so appealed, or was it the I-want-a-marker-part? Aside from that walk through the redwoods, I’d given no serious thought to whether I wanted to wind up in a casket, urn, cigar-box or Mason jar. I did draw the line at cryonics. Not only is it expensive and of dubious long-term utility, keep in mind that we live in Chicago—I know what cold feels like. Now, however, having deprived death of some its strangeness, and had mused on the love stories snugly preserved across the road, my take on how and where I wanted to wind up had crystalized.
All of that was top of mind when we sat down later over coffee and glazed donuts to resume our negotiations over the graveyard proposal. You go first, I said. No, you go first, she replied.
I ticked off the many reasons I felt so good about the graveyard. Peaceful and quiet. Steeped in history. Boasts a gratifyingly diverse population — Christians and Jews, gays and straights, sea captains and ballerinas, war heroes and manufacturing moguls, honest working folk and a handful of VIP’s who were always assured of a good table at the now gone Upper East Side restaurant Elaine’s (may she rest in peace).
As for the marker part, well, I like that part, too, I said. I just like the idea of leaving behind rock-hard evidence that I was here in the first place, with a few choice words that summed it all up. Linda raised an eyebrow. This wasn’t like me. When we give money to good causes, it’s usually anonymously. As for writing one’s own epitaph, I used to think it was… is narcossisistic a word? On the other hand, what’s the big deal, right? A self-commissioned epitaph is small potatoes compared to what some people do by way of their leave-behinds: they pass on detailed production notes on how their memorial services should be staged, as Nora Ephron did prior to her untimely death in 2012— music playlist, eulogists with assigned topics, a star-studded cast, everything was brilliantly envisioned.
Linda’s side of the discussion was not nearly as windy or as tortured as mine, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows us both. Let’s just leave it that she was open to the idea. Okay, she was ambivalent. But practical. She suggested that we at least check out a few details before putting stakes in the ground. Were there even any vacancies over at the graveyard? Did we qualify for admission? We were, after all, merely short-term renters here in town. Copping so much as a crummy beach-parking sticker had been a mountain to climb. But, sure, I said, let’s scope things out— how about walking down to the town hall right now?
And, indeed, we almost did. We were on the brink of changing out of our shorts and flip-flops so we’d be more presentable when inquiring into graveyard rates and availability. But we didn’t go. Instead, we slipped into our bathing suits, it being too beautiful a summer’s day to waste on life’s untimely frost, then rode our bikes to the beach.
In what was left of our time on Long Island, I continued my daily graveyard visits right up until the day we left for home. By now, three things had fundamentally changed. Death didn’t seem nearly so strange. I’d come to understand that even though life stops, our stories don’t—they live on in a way. And, most important of all, in whichever form our ashes (or bones) finally wind up, I want them to wind up together—and for the long haul. No surprise, then, that as I jogged past the tombstones on those closing days, then strolled along the paths at dusk, I kept an eye out for the perfect spot—wide enough for two, with proper drainage and just the right mix of sun and shade—as if scouting for a place to build a dream house.
Lee Eisenberg is a best-selling author and the former editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine. His new book is titled The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between.