Today my mother, sisters, and I managed to commit to a headstone for our father/husband. This deceptively simple declaration in no way hints at the angst, acrimony, long discussions, and many iterations that went into the decision. A few numbers:
- 5 decision makers (one living 3,000 miles away, in a different time zone)
- 1 option for granite (throw-up pink)
- 1 style option (flat, bronze plaque on granite background)
- 1 choice of typeface
- 6 lines of content (3 of which — name and dates in English and Hebrew — were predetermined)
- 2 meetings with the monument folks (preceded by and interspersed with numerous emails and phone calls). For the second meeting, our monuments liaison greeted us with, “Ah, here come my favorite clients.” The whimper and slight cringe were almost undetectable.
- 15 layout iterations (each emailed, reviewed, and commented on prior to the meetings, but discussed during the meetings as though we’d never seen them)
0 consensus. 3 consensus. 0 consensus.
- 5 consensus (well, close enough; those present agreed, with proxies from the rest)
With such limited choices, you’d think the decision making would be pretty simple. My family doesn’t do simple, though. And we debate everything.
In all fairness, I blame the cemetery rules for a lot of the problem. We entered into this prepared to create something that appropriately memorialized our father/husband. He was an exceptional man; in an ideal world we would be able to mark his final resting place with something as unique and meaningful as he was (and still is) to us. Architectural marvels, words of pure literary genius, great music, gorgeous landscaping… he deserves all of that and more. But that’s not how these things work. You pick a cemetery, buy your plot, and find out — belatedly — that rules of homogeneity rather than spontaneity govern your choices.
Some people prefer the neatness, conformity, and simplicity of one type of stone and one style of marker. We are not of that ilk. We embrace mismatched dishes, unusual color combinations, quirky materials (my mother once made a picture frame from a piece of Styrofoam). We argue. A lot. So achieving consensus on the headstone is a real accomplishment. The only person who wouldn’t be surprised that we managed it would be our father — who would have rolled his eyes and chuckled at the squabbling but never doubted that we’d get it done. Let me note that we did attempt to circumvent the system and were able to get grudging consent for a different typeface and an alternative granite choice (worse than the original). We debated decorative borders, which lines should be in Hebrew, and the spelling of transliterated Ladino phrases (it does get complicated to incorporate multiple cultural influences).
Truthfully, though, the headstone is just the public symbol of the real memorial. The one we each carry inside us and share through stories and laughter. And tears. We remember with love and gratitude the time we had together. When I read something or see something that I know Dad would have liked, I enjoy it a little more for imagining his enjoyment. I know my father would have understood this. I don’t think he visited his own parents’ graves more than a time or two, but he thought of them and talked about them every day. That’s the lesson and that’s the living memorial we are building for our father.
In a January 2015 NY Times article, I encountered the term “differently extant” and this is how I think of him. He may not be physically here, but he most definitely is still present. And he sure would be pleased to know we got his headstone squared away and are still speaking to each other…