All places are alike, and every earth is fit for burial. – Christopher Marlowe
I think a lot about death—not the “I want to die” kind of rumination but the obligatory nature of the thing, the fact that it’s looming and proximate to my side.
They buried someone on top of my German grandmother’s grave. They needed the space, my mother said. It’s not uncommon in crowded cities, in countries like Germany, France, England, and such, to layer coffins these days. It’s not uncommon to bury the dead in vertical graves, either—to stand the graves upright. Fifty-six million people die each year across the globe; that’s a lot of mourning, and a lot of decaying matter to deal with; concessions have to be made.
We installed a drainage pipe in a pasture a few months back, and when we dug, bones surfaced, but this was no ancient burial ground and no romantic stories lay hidden beneath the dirt. Yet memories were there, and love. The bones were those of a lamb that died unexpectedly; the vet was called but found nothing amiss. Sometimes they just die, he said. Sometimes living things die because that’s what living things do.
I could talk of other animals, of Stinky Pete the old ram that laid down one day, closed his eyes and passed to wherever animals pass to. Of Allie the cat and Muffin the cat and Fluffy the cat. Hank and Ricky. Thunder, Lightning. Candy Corn, no, she disappeared—coyotes, we think, or a fox, raccoon, maybe a hawk. Of chickens without name and without number. Of ducks, guineas, turkeys. A beloved dog. We’ve lost much in the eleven years we’ve been on this small farmstead. Our graveyard is full, and our sadness lingers at the edge of past and inevitable.
In China, a small group called the Bo People were known for carving a coffin from a single log and suspending it by sticks on the side of a sacred cliff. Presumably this was to keep scavengers away, and lest I sound irreverent, I will only lightly mention the coolness of the concept, hanging in space for all eternity, or until the wood rots away—interment in space, high above the ground where breezes dance and the soul is free to fly.
On the other side, my father’s side, Great-Grandma Matilda was buried in the woods a mile or so from the cabin where she raised her half-breed Cherokee offspring. Her beautiful black hair is gone to us, her spirit, loose and indulgent.
I visited those woods in 2001 with one of her two living sons, my great-uncle. We saw the large rocks scattered around an area the size of our living room, or maybe a little larger, noted the absence of other markers. “Those were the headstones in this rural cemetery,” Uncle said.
Sometimes I think I want to be buried at sea, weighted down Woolf-like, with words said over me in solemn yet hopeful tones. I want to swim with the seals and dive with the sharks, decompose in the dulse, become one with someone’s cheese and kelp sandwich (uber-salty, this).
A new thing is the reef-ball burial. It has potential. My ashes would be cemented into a holey urn and dropped near a reef in need. Fishes will use me as a thoroughfare; I’ll grow algae, provide shelter.
Would the pens of the Bronte sisters have graced us with other classics had the Haworth church existed without a graveyard, if remains had been buried away from water sources, or cremated, or even “reef-balled” in one of the many wetland moors spread across England?
A large maple poses in the foreground of Dickenson Cemetery, three miles from here. It’s quaint, well-cared for, flagged behind by a couple of unoccupied houses (as they obviously should be if we’re to learn a lesson from the Brontes), and on the east side of a rural road. When the sun sets, orange and purple ring the stark white clouds—lava on snow which never melts—and the tableau is holy; angels watch. The shadows stretch long across the nearby tombs and encase serenity. But for the spelling of the name, it could be a perfect resting place. “I want to be buried there,” I told my companion once, twice, maybe three times, but that was before I learned of reef-balls, and maybe now I’ll put a new bug in his ear.
I do not condone being buried with live animals as the Vikings did—such as a faithful horse, or especially with living people as those in India once did, and sometimes still do—usually a spouse, but to be buried with a favorite book would be idyllic, a diary, notes from loved ones, photos, mementos.
I called my mom to fact-check. “No, she said, “they don’t layer-bury as much anymore simply because most are cremated in Germany now; the cemeteries are full. But when they do bury, they bury on top of one another.”
“Do they at least leave the previous gravestone or a marker of some kind, for the relatives, as a memorial?”
Came the stark reply: No. She continued, “I want to be cremated, and I’m an organ donor. Maybe they can use my fingers, an ear, an eye, if my actual organs are no good.” She’s 77, and these were facts I didn’t know.
There are still places in the world where partially-filled graveyards dot the countryside and gravesites are treasured, showered with blossom. Yet we consider beyond the convenience of our own deposition, to that of our kin and the future.
As for me, please bury deep, cheap, but let residual opinions of me roll on reefs, on a cliff-side breeze, in a sunset at dusk. Let the recollections bolt upright in the hush of a moment, and remember.
Chila Woychik writes, edits, and hikes in Iowa. Of German and Cherokee descent, she lives with her husband in a rural setting where she can enjoy nature in all its wildness and wonder. Her latest works appear in The Mayo Review, The Milo Review, Prick of the Spindle, and others.