That Friday afternoon last month, a Green-Wood Cemetery employee named Katie escorted Laura and me as we toured options for our future remains. We walked from buildings to open areas with ponds and vistas, on to another building, and then to yet other scenic settings. For the living, Green-Wood (the hyphen is in the official name) is a place of rolling hills and quiet spaces, and has been since 1838, before there was Central or Prospect Park. For those preparing for the end of life, it holds out the promise of a peaceful eternity. For the dead? Who can say.
We’d been married just two weeks before, though after a twenty-six-year relationship, and were still high from that joyful occasion. But our decision to marry meant we had to update our wills. In doing so, we’ve kept in mind the example Laura’s father has set by organizing his affairs, including burial arrangements, so that when his turn comes (Ben is still going strong at ninety-seven), his family won’t later have to do a job he can do now more easily.
We’ve decided we wish our remains to be preserved as ashes in side-by-side urns. I don’t pretend to know if there’s any kind of consciousness after death, but if there is, our remains being next to each other ought to be a comfort; if there isn’t, then we won’t know the difference. But prearranging proximity is the one condition we can make during our lifetime against death: lame, even futile, but a declaration of our wishes.
Although our Green-Wood exploration covered much of the area, it centered around the “Tranquility Garden.” That’s something that usually bothers me: places named for the feelings they are designed either to evoke or hide. Green-Wood’s naming practice does both. “Tranquility” certainly captures my state of mind during our tour, but it also covers over the sorrow of death and the loss felt by the bereaved. So be it. I nodded to myself when Katie first said the name.
She showed us a variety of urn housing types. There are glass enclosures in which survivors place the urn of ashes alongside memorabilia. With the wooden cabinet option, the urn is sealed in a compartment and memorabilia kept above in a drawer, both closed to public view behind a locked miniature door. The fronts of these glass and wooden enclosures are about a square foot in area and are all located in building interiors. Outside, you can have your urn buried under a small stone in designated grass areas.
We found ourselves drawn to the fourth and final urn housing type: the granite “niche.” A niche is one of four compartments that share the same etched granite cover, known as a “tablet.” Tablets, each a little under four feet square, line the walls of building interiors, and also their exteriors, as well as the countertop-high perimeter and freestanding walls that border or run through certain areas, such as the Tranquility Garden.
Each niche can house two urns. However, behind the tablet cover we’d be sharing a quartet of small rooms with the niches of three strangers. If we were the first to be placed in that four-unit housing, the cover would be removed at least three more times as our accidental neighbors were placed beside, above or below us.
“I know this sounds silly,” I said to Katie, “but is there no privacy?”
With a small laugh, she acknowledged my question’s surface absurdity. Then she said the urns are kept sealed in their separate compartments even when the tablet is opened to receive another urn. Not completely satisfying, but the only assurance possible.
Of course, it’s likely that Laura or I will survive the other, which means even our separate niche will be opened a second time.
What was Katie’s job title? Salesperson? Guide? She was both these things and more. We didn’t think to ask. At twenty-eight, she’s slim and has long brown hair. Laura asked how she got into this work. She answered that she’s an archivist and genealogist. Grad school connections and chance job openings led her to Green-Wood. Such a background helped explain the self-confidence she showed in engaging us on terms as equal as they can be between salesperson and potential buyers.
When we examined the glass enclosure option, the wood one, the stone on the ground and a niche, we asked Katie for the price. Each time, she patiently looked up the answer in the old-fashioned binder of diagrams and markings that she carried with her. The prices she quoted ranged from $2,200 to $6,000. For each option, the price varied by location. The fee is one-time.
At first, I thought, what a bargain! We pay now for a cubbyhole we might not occupy for another twenty, thirty or even forty years. An actuary somewhere must have calculated the cost going forward and assessed a price that, with the payment invested, will sustain the cemetery, as lawyers say, in perpetuity. And once we’ve moved into our niche, they’ll be stuck with us. After our estates have been probated and distributed, Green-Wood won’t be able to extract another penny from us.
Then I thought, thousands of dollars for a few hundred cubic inches? How extravagant.
Suddenly I’m besieged by more negatives. What about vandalism? History and the nightly TV news constantly remind us that civilization’s destroyers are always lurking, always ready to go to work. We asked Katie about the cemetery’s security. 24/7, she assured us.
I later learn with Google’s aid that in 2012, separate incidents of vandalism and a tropical storm, Sandy, caused significant damage to a number of Green-Wood’s monuments, as well as several of the cemetery’s prized trees, but there appear to be no signs of damage today. They must have done an outstanding job of repairing and clearing.
Another uncertainty factor: the cemetery is run by people, and people are prone to temptation and political pressures. Today Green-Wood appears to be conscientiously run, but I speculate that exigency could conceivably persuade a future board that certain areas need to be reassigned for some population-density-driven purpose. No doubt they would direct employees to take great care to catalog each stone and urn for safekeeping elsewhere, but in such exercises, mistakes will be made. Katie told us of such an event when another cemetery closed and had its records transferred to Green-Wood. If anything goes wrong, I surmise, the tablet cover with our names etched on it could be misplaced and our urns end up separated.
A day or two after our Green-Wood tour, I looked up Thomas Browne’s 1658 essay, “Urn Burial,” which he wrote on the discovery of Roman artifacts near his home in Norfolk, England. Even as he firmly believed in mysticism, church religion and witchcraft, he was a doctor whose scientific knowledge was advanced for his day. I’d read his essay forty years earlier and remembered only the effect of its poetic beauty. Re-reading it, I was reminded that fears of what become of our remains are ancient:
Who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or whether they are to be scattered? The Reliques of many lie like the ruines of Pompeys, in all parts of the earth; And when they arrive at your hands, these may seem to have wandered far, who in a direct and Meridian Travell, have but few miles of known Earth between your self and the Pole.
At Green-Wood, my anxiety about times’ contingencies was diverted by the breeze drifting benignly around us from across the cemetery’s open spaces. It was a sunny, early autumn day. The cheerful folk song, “The Gipsy Rover,” came into my head. Its line, “He whistled and sang till the green woods rang,” had put it there.
Katie told us that the cemetery’s board and other local organizations had succeeded in stopping the construction of a building that would have blocked the view from Green-Wood’s bronze statue of Minerva all the way to the Statue of Liberty. More important to me than the view is that Green-Wood, with its 478 acres and Brooklyn’s highest elevation (two hundred feet above sea level), can never be hemmed in. Never, that is, barring exigency, vandalism, the vagaries of politics. For now, all the indications are that Green-Wood will be forever open to the wind, just as our ashes will be forever preserved.
I felt that breeze as spirit, although I didn’t name it as such in the moment. I don’t mean “spirit” as a metaphor, allying it with something it isn’t. Nor do I mean it literally; I don’t pretend to know if the atmosphere carries the spirits either of the dead or the paranormal. But in an exquisite setting, open to the elements on a gently warm day, the breeze coming from far away evokes a familiar unknown: familiar because experienced before; unknown because we don’t know its origin and can’t put a name on it, unless that name is “spirit.”
Sensing the presence of spirits in a lovely place, I felt my infinitesimalness; how I am a particle connected to all other particles, the grain of sand in which Wordsworth saw the world. People who exclaim how “puny” we are in relation to the universe seem to relish doing so, as if seeing themselves as willing to handle hard reality that ordinary mortals are too timid to. Still, it’s true. I’m a minuscule sum of all the emotions, genes, materials, psychological traits that flow through the human race. The ratios may be different, but all the elements are there. The proof was that I was feeling something of what billions of people have felt before me and billions more will long after.
It is this connection that helps reconcile many people to death. Some go so far as to instruct that their ashes be entrusted to the sea or scattered in the air from a bridge so that they will merge with the elements from which they came and with those to follow. For me, such a disposition would be chaotic. I need order, and it seems that for me, order means boundaries, one reason I prefer an urn.
My other reason for choosing an urn is my desire to share whatever comes after life with Laura. Even if we instructed that our ashes be scattered on the same lawn, a park or some other pleasant place, though it would be cheap and simple, there’d be no guarantee that our remains would stay together, our afterlives entwined.
Of course, to think this way is borderline insane. Our ashes will be a tiny reduction of what we are while living. I even hear our ashes are merely the residual of the mineral deposits inside us. But deciding on how to have our bodies managed after our deaths forces us to think practically about death.
Except the only practicality is that our corpses not harm the living. The rest is a seeking for acceptance of something we cannot. How can consciousness, memory, feelings, thought, ideas all come to a halt when the body experiences its ultimate failure? It’s so grim to contemplate that we banish it behind a perimeter wall of politeness and humor.
A childhood memory came to me of another open space on a sunny, breezy day. I’ve long associated that memory with a visit to my father’s father when he was hospitalized. At any rate, I think he was, and I think I was taken to visit him. I remember gardens arranged in steps, possibly leading down to a river. I’m sure the memory has a foundation, but its images could have been layered on from other settings. The feelings it evokes are a mixture of contentment and sadness.
But at Green-Wood, I thought about my other grandfather, my mother’s father, who died when I was three. I wonder if my parents took me to his funeral. It would make sense, although I have no memory of it. But assuming we did, perhaps we went to the cemetery to witness the casket being lowered. Maybe that’s where that early memory comes from: not a hospital’s grounds, but another cemetery’s manicured landscape. It would explain the sadness in the memory. If so, it suggests how our ancestors even from generations ago can influence us. As a child with an undeveloped ability to process and verbalize experience and a dimly emerging memory, I must have picked up the emotions of my grandfather’s survivors: through them from him to me.
While searching online for a copy of Browne’s “Urn Burial,” I came across W.G. Sebald’s thoughts about it in his The Rings of Saturn (1995), a memoir masquerading as a novel, or vice-versa, that has been on my must-read list for years. Reading Rings at long last, I discover that it’s a meditation on regeneration and, because written in a modern style, more easily grasped than Browne’s complex sentences. Contemplating “Urn Burial” in the first chapter, Sebald writes:
As a doctor, who saw disease growing and raging in bodies, [Browne] understood mortality better than the flowering of life. To him it seems a miracle that we should last so much as a single day. There is no antidote, he writes, against the opium of time.
Yet Sebald continues:
Browne then turns to the strange vessels unearthed from the field near Walsingham. It is astounding, he says, how long these thin-walled clay urns remained intact a yard underground, while the sword and ploughshare passed above them and great buildings, palaces and cloud-high towers crumbled and collapsed. The cremated remains in the urns are examined closely: the ash, the loose teeth, some long roots of quitch, or dog’s grass wreathed about the bones, and the coin intended for the Elysian ferryman. Browne records other objects known to have been placed with the dead, whether as ornament or utensil. … The most marvellous item, however, from a Roman urn preserved by Cardinal Farnese, is a drinking glass, so bright it might have been newly blown. For Browne, things of this kind, unspoiled by the passage of time, are symbols of the indestructibility of the human soul…
Until a bathroom visit at the end of our Green-Wood tour, we avoided the building that houses the crematorium and columbarium. I neglected to ask Katie to explain “columbarium,” but Wikipedia tells me it “is a place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns.” Wikipedia continues: “The term comes from the Latin ‘columba’ (dove) and originally referred to compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons called a dovecote.” Pigeons and doves are in the same bird family, the Columbidae.
Reading the Wikipedia entry, I think of John Le Carré’s 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, which begins with the release of pigeons from a dovecote-like tunnel. How they must crave that moment of freedom. If Laura and I elect the granite niche option, we’ll be confined like those pigeons. And if our niche were ever opened up and the lids popped off our urns, the ashes would surely scatter on the wind the way pigeons bolt from their dovecote. Let’s hope that unlike Le Carré’s pigeons, hunters aren’t waiting outside to take potshots. Then again, what further damage could bullets do to bodies already reduced to ashes?
Then my thoughts stray to the symbols that doves have represented through the millennia. There’s the dove that in Christian art stands for the Holy Ghost. In Jewish writing, and I believe commonly elsewhere, there’s the dove that is the human soul as it leaves the body. We look at pigeons as nasty doves and doves as nice pigeons, so perhaps it’s fitting that both should play roles in the history and mythology of urn burial.
Although our Green-Wood exercise is intended to save difficulties for the people we leave behind, the arrangements we make will be as much, if not more, for our own benefit. When that day comes, whichever one of us survives won’t be calm. Katie, if she’s still there, will see us in a very different light, not practical, not light-hearted, not karaoke-ing inside to “The Gipsy Rover,” but weighed down by grief.
Awkwardly, I asked if she’d developed a shell that enables her to handle her work at the cemetery. She responded by talking about the pain of people who have just lost someone and are seeking help with funeral arrangements. But then she claimed that each evening she is able to leave the job behind. Something anyone in her position had to say, but I imagine it was true. Mostly true. She struck me as too sensitive for emotional separation to be always possible.
With handshakes, we parted from Katie and headed off for the cemetery’s great Victorian, Gothic-spired entryway, famous for its bright green parrots whose ascendants had escaped in the late sixties from (according to conflicting theories) pet shops, pet owners or containers at Kennedy Airport. However they got here, all the way from Argentina, their freedom was hard-won. From their mass of stick nests woven into the archway’s spaces, they cawed, grunted and occasionally shrieked, although Laura, who has previously sketched in Green-Wood, said they weren’t making anything like the racket they do in the spring.
We discover we’re both thinking that the home we might choose for our future ashes is a niche in the horseshoe-arranged stand-alone wall by the koi pond in the Tranquility Garden. I’d also considered one of those stones in the ground because we’d be the only two buried under it. But all those future feet walking on top of us! Besides, if Laura predeceased me (that euphemistic Latinate obscurantism), visiting her would mean standing before a small object in the ground, and standing has become uncomfortable for me. At the Tranquility Garden wall, I could lean with my elbows on the countertop-like surface and contemplate her, the tablet guarding her ashes against my chest.
But if things go the way I’d like to think, even before our ashes’ inurnment, our souls will have left the body the way doves of old rose as transmuted human souls; as Green-Wood’s parrots freed themselves from their cages. Our souls might not be quiet, either, but in that case, may the sounds be like liberated avian chatter.
Update: We eventually selected a niche in a freestanding wall that has a wide vista, away from the koi pond and cemetery buildings.
My gratitude to Laura and Katie for giving me permission to use their names. Without their cooperation, this essay would have been very different, perhaps not even possible.