We 75-million baby boomers are just about finished with the task of burying the Greatest Generation and drawing uncomfortably close to the season of burying our own. By 2010, we will have officially begun our 30-year-long die-off, boosting the annual death rate in the United States to 3-million, 700,000 more each year than at the beginning of this century.
Death and what to do about it (nothing, of course — I mean logistics, ceremony, ritual: the choices of the still-breathing) are unavoidable, inevitable topics, yet they come haltingly to the forefront of conversation, cutting against the grain of America's culture of life and youth and its illusions of perfection.
As for myself, give me a cigarette and let me grieve.
At the middle of my sixth decade, I have buried those I was meant to survive and bury, a duty that only grows more cruel with repetition. Since the turn of the millennium, death's operational tempo in my life has been swift and relentless — parents, best friends, cherished colleagues and, closest to the daily tick of my heart, a trio of lovely dogs, all vanished in a cloud of loss.
Inside my laptop case I carry a VIP pass to Arlington National Cemetery, where my parents' ashes are interred together in the marble walls of the cemetery's columbarium. Neither Arlington nor cremation were their original choices, but they sold their family plots in their hometown of West Pittston, Pa., where their own parents are buried, after my father's career with the Navy finally earned him the right, along with my mother, to be squeezed into Arlington's dwindling space. On one condition: they had to be burned — a decision that does not come easy to conservative Catholics. But they had lived most of their adult lives in northern Virginia, my father clung to Arlington as his last wish, and my mother went along with the revised plan, choosing necessity and fashion (cremation) over tradition and sentiment (a casket in the ground alongside her ancestors and bygone friends).
My wife's mother died just over a year ago and, following her request, her remains were cremated, an outcome my wife's father, still alive at 86, refuses for himself. The scion of a founding family of the commonwealth, he is determined to have his body laid into the ground in Pedlar Mills, Va., where the people who raised him, and the people who raised them, are buried in mostly forgotten, unvisited, sometimes unmarked, graves.
My in-laws were unhoused by old age, severing their centuries-long relationship with Virginia to be near a daughter and grandchildren in Colorado, where the ashes of my wife's mother sit in a dresser drawer in a forlorn house that never quite became a home, waiting for her husband to die, waiting to travel back east, where her burned remains will be placed with his unburnt flesh in his casket and lowered, finally, into consecrated ground, to be occasionally mourned, as at Arlington, by respectful strangers, collective grief perhaps more important to our national identity than any individual's bereavement.
Such is the board game the dead play in America. It's out of our hands, we sons and daughters say, begging the question, What happens when in fact it is in our hands?
Early in August, when Russia invaded Georgia, what most seized my attention about the conflict was a statement by the interior minister of South Ossetia, who claimed the assault on his breakaway enclave had caused more than 2,000 deaths, most uncounted, he explained, because many people had buried their relatives in their gardens. Americans, to be sure, given to restlessness and mobility, generations removed from backyard burials, would not relate to this grim news, or allow their imaginations to dally on its import.
But I immediately thought of Ken Kesey and Robert Frost, digging holes to lay to rest their own children in their own turf. I had a few days earlier, with the help of a band of brothers, dug a grave under the oak tree in front of our cabin, here in the mountains of New Mexico, to lay to rest the body of the most beautiful creature I had ever known, our Irish setter, Teddy Girl. Heaven forbid you should ever have to dispose of your babies, but those who love and shelter animals as if they were family members are summoned to such heavy labor.
Not all of our children share our DNA or, for that matter, come to us in human form. Regardless of species, those we claim as our beloved have beating hearts, engaging eyes, soulful spirits; they bring into our lives wonder and joy and pain. Like all children, they are a burden to their parents — "I think they were supposed to be," writes the poet/funeral director Thomas Lynch, of his own kids — and there is no greater burden than their deaths. And even if and when we lose them we are never, and cannot be, finished with them.
When Teddy died, never recovering from surgery, I told my wife I wanted to bring her back to our land and bury her, which was not how my wife envisioned the aftermath of Teddy's death. She wanted her cremated, her urn placed atop the shelf above our bed with the urns of Teddy's predecessors, Issabel and Frankie, who had both died in Florida and now existed as precious baggage, hauled back and forth between Tallahassee, where we had lived for 20 years without ever thinking we belonged there, and our four high-country acres in northern New Mexico, which we very much thought of as home, our first true home after 33 years of marriage, although circumstances prohibited us from residing there full time.
But Teddy Girl — she was through love the most I was or could be, this one, and my bond with her was inescapable. I could not bear the thought of even her lifeless self slipping from my grasp, delivered without my attendance to the disassembly line, returned in a tin can, a separation by fire that seemed much more of an erasure than a separation by earth. The transcending rationale, though, was the elusive vocabulary of home — after so many years we finally could admit to having one, it would always be ours, we would always be here, and Teddy's burial within its survey would make it sacred.
So in shifts throughout an August afternoon we dug Teddy's grave, my friends and I, too deep by the end to pull ourselves out without help. She was a big girl, Teddy — 106 pounds, her weight the same as a co-ed's. Then we lined the floor of the grave with flagstone, spread her sleeping pad from corner to corner, and Mace and I jumped down to receive her shrouded body as Mark and Albert lowered her in, along with the ashes of Issabel and Frank, who no longer sit isolated from my consciousness, forgotten on a shelf.
Graves, it goes without saying, are for the living, especially one as peaceful and beckoning as our setters'. At twilight, my wife and I often sit nearby with cocktails, never bothering to rein our emotions, whichever direction they run, and no surprise we have begun to discuss, however tentatively, the particularities of our own demise.
It's no illusion of eternity I seek. I know this grave, and my ownership of it, will pass into the anonymity of the future. Yet for a snap of time's fingers, it will be an unlikely and much appreciated permanence in my life, a source of comfort, an engine of memory, and a sorrow I dare not live without.
Bob Shacochis divides his time between the mountains of New Mexico and Tallahassee, where he teaches at Florida State. The author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, he won the National Book Award for Easy in the Islands and the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for The Next New World. He was the "Dining In" columnist for GQ and is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine as well as Harper's.