Headstone Theory

On the ride back from Milwaukee, I noticed the low headstones in one of the cemeteries, and I got a sense, from the arrangement of the headstones, as if it were some kind of message, that one stone couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be any higher than any other. All of the headstones were low to the ground, modest. I suppose status is all relative, though. As a collective, Wisconsin might be a humble and unassuming personality, or it might like to think it’s being humble in respect to the gaudiness of the giant stone crosses in the northeast. In its own community, though, there’s probably a pecking order when it comes to headstone height.

The hopeful part of me has conjured an elderly woman who must bury her husband. She corrects the headstone guy, the proprietor of the headstone place: “No, no. Not higher anyone else, by God…” or whatever it is that elderly women from Milwaukee might say. “By God” sounds right to me. I actually tried to research this by emailing a couple of colleagues who grew up or resided in the Milwaukeee-ish area. I received no response – not even an acknowledgement of my question. It may have been a bit offensive to ask someone about regional colloquialisms, as if I’m accusing them of some abnormality, so I take the absence of a response as their refusal to believe that “folks” (I know that’s fucking right.) from this part of the Midwest aren’t any different from folks anywhere else, and why are you asking us this ridiculous question when you should be working, maybe planning your next class, or better yet, answering a petulant email from one of your other colleagues? So much happens in the silence, especially when you’re a paranoid Northeasterner. Maybe it’s “dear God.”

The dominant, cynical part of me now forms that same woman taking measures to ensure that her husband’s headstone is two centimeters higher than George Redzinski’s, taking into consideration how the stone might shift and settle over the years, the generations, because “We’ll be back to check, you know.” Even if it’s not any higher than George’s, it must be at least the same height, so just to be sure, let’s make sure it’s three centimeters higher. No, I will not even consider a flush headstone. Our cat has a flush headstone. We want our headstones to impose on the landscape, but not too much.

As I write this, though, I’m remembering walking past the cemetery in Chicago on Irving Park while I came back from the post office. The air was thick with heat, and I remember smelling sperm for about a hundred feet of my walk past the cemetery (Graceland, I think it was called). The air was musky and alive, and it melded with the earth and the weeds, and yes, probably the corpse-enriched soil, and the result was what I swear was a spermy smell for a good hundred feet. I’ll always remember that smell, but I’ll also remember my hypothesis being shot to shit when I saw all those giant headstones – those giant, unassuming, urban, Midwest headstones all staggered, inconsistent, asymmetrical, independent, alone.

Then there’s the terrified part of me who thinks it took no thought at all. His insurance covered this kind of stone, and the elderly woman was told which ones she could choose from. It was all done without thought and consideration other than she loved him like it was a duty, but life goes on and who was she to kick up a fuss over what every other person on Earth has to endure? Just call Don Rembowski at the funeral home on Ogden and tell him that you trust him to make all the arrangements, ‘cause golly and gosh and shucks, he’s been in this business for, what, twenty-eight years? Burying her husband is something she has no experience with, so she’ll just let go of this responsibility and let the professionals do what’s best.

It’s different with the Army cemetery in which my grandparents rest, though. I’m not convinced it’s any kind of social arrangement there, but more trying to impress with repetition and symmetry. The National cemeteries do impress with this symmetry, too. The stones roll over hills and turn with the land – miles and miles of symmetry. Look at all that dead, it says to us. Look at how they continue to hold the line, stand shoulder to shoulder, march on.

There are at least two other ways to look at headstone theory, though. The headstone could be like the tip of the iceberg, where all of the mass and substance lie beneath the surface. The tip of the iceberg isn’t impressive at all, and those who subscribe to this theory really don’t care about outside perception when observing the size of a headstone. The survivors know that the importance is what lies beneath. Still, others might see the headstone as a tree. I learned rather recently that a tree has a symmetrical network of branches both above ground and underground, almost like a reflection on a glassy pond. Survivors need the big headstone, in this case, because passing observers – fucking strangers – must be able to identify the grandiosity of what lies beneath by observing the size of what exists above ground.

These theories don’t work for mausoleums, however – these fucking houses in which some people are entombed. A mausoleum is a mausoleum. If you reside in one, you’re really goddamn important.

Maybe the theory does work, though, when you consider that anything you might ever need to know about someone in a mausoleum is superficial and thus (thus?) only exists above ground level. Their intrinsic value only goes as deep as they exist, physically, beneath the Earth.

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