The Plot

Written By: Ed  Joyce

The Plot I wasn’t too keen on the idea of buying a cemetery plot in the first place. Neither of us even had a cold, but my wife insisted. “I need to know where I’ll be,” she said. “I want someplace the children can come to visit.” I didn’t think they actually would visit –they weren’t doing too much visiting now –but I kept my mouth shut. “Someplace peaceful,” she said. So, while other people were dreaming of restful vacations and real estate on the beach, we set out to look for a final resting place. City cemeteries like Calvary Cemetery in Queens or Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx are like Roman ruins with avenues lined with mausoleums and life -sized statues of angels guarding the graves. I remembered the weekly visits to those places, visits I had made as a child, mumbling prayers for ancestors who died before I was even born. There was always a vendor selling flowers out front and miles of narrow roads and pathways behind iron fences. They were vast and peaceful oases of quiet, encircled by noisy expressways and boulevards. The marble monuments not only carried the promise of life in the next world, they seemed to be the next world itself. I was not looking forward to what was coming. We followed Montauk Highway into the Moriches. We turned past the stone pillars that marked the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a name that seemed to fit the setting except for the fact that there was no mount. The lawns were like velvet; the tombstones engraved with detailed etchings of fishing boats or other icons that defined the lives of those who lay beneath the surface. The inscriptions were personal, original and touching. Two teenaged boys rode tractors smoothing the lawns into peaceful compliance. It all seemed perfect until I noticed the stacks of the crematorium next to the office. Of course many people prefer cremation, but I could neither reconcile nor confront the context it gives to death. Perhaps it was the non-sectarian character of the burial ground that sent me back into my past. Religion–even religion neglected–defines the way we look at death. Hamlet couldn’t figure out where the ghost of his father came from. Reluctantly I headed for a Catholic cemetery, Holy Sepulcher on route 112 in Coram. Everything was laid out with precision. The headstones were of a uniform size, the inscriptions chosen from a short list of approved epitaphs. There were rules and there were expenses, but there was also a consolation in the clarity of doctrine that defined the place. It was one thing to stray from a belief system which could be so strict that it demanded deviation; it was quite another to abandon it completely and embrace an eternity of existential nothingness. I turned the car around and headed to the East End, where we live. In Hampton Bays, I visited Good Ground, an area named by Native Americans. It consisted of a series of gentle hills hidden away between Montauk and Sunrise Highways. The sounds of the traffic did not allow the dead to rest in peace. In Southampton I drove through Sacred Heart Cemetery where the large plots in the back defined the burial grounds of the extended families of the very wealthy. As impressive as the place was, it made me wonder whether the sense of salvation the place conferred was more about money than morality. In East Hampton I took the time to read the headstones of colonial figures and sea captains, always pausing at the graves of infants, the most dramatic statement that life is brief. My wife and I are different. She likes cemeteries; I don’t. I have never been very good at making decisions, and I wasn’t up to deciding on a final resting place. Somehow the very notion of burial in the Hamptons did not work for me. The more we looked at the small, local cemeteries that lay almost hidden behind village churches, places that spoke of the early Protestant settlers, the more I wanted to seek out large, Catholic burial grounds. But the Catholic cemeteries seemed connected to a frightening afterlife out of Dante’s imagination. I sought out burial grounds with no religious connection at all, but they did not make any statement about the meaning of life and left me feeling empty. “Why is this so hard for you?” my wife asked. “Don’t you want to be buried with me? We have to have a place to be buried. ” I thought to myself that it did not matter because no one would know I was there, but it did matter. The decision was forcing me to stand for something, but I was confused. For those of us who came from New York City, the East End has always seemed to be the Garden of Eden, not a place associated with burial grounds. The very beauty of the land and sea emphasized life here, not hereafter. The search for a final resting place seemed to have come to its own dead end. I had been reluctant to make the journey in the first place, and had found that choosing a gravesite involved endorsing philosophical and theological positions that I could neither rebut nor relinquish. But my wife knew that this was one of those decisions that have to be made. She looked it in the face, and I avoided it. The gravedigger in Hamlet refuses to be overwhelmed by the meaning of the grave and responds to the question, “Whose grave is this?” by claiming it is his simply because he stands in it. Does his sacrilegious humor about the grave transcend the contemplation of existence? Is thinking about whether “to be or not to be” a mistake? And was thinking that the place we are buried makes a statement also a mistake? Was I making a big deal out of something that did not matter? Looking for a plot had metamorphosed looking for what was beyond the grave, and I realized that I was not up to the task. How could I pick the physical place the path would end when I was still seeking my metaphysical path? Dante had Vergil to help him confront the terror he felt, but our modern journeys don’t follow fixed paths. Like him, I needed a guide to show the way. The dog was strong, a hound. It had been rescued from a shelter in the South just before it was about to be put down. It was my first day as a volunteer. I followed him as he led me along the path and up a small hill that overlooked the pet cemetery. The path opened onto a clearing full of snow-covered tombstones and monuments. In the distance loomed the tall stacks of the pet crematorium. At the top of the hill the dog stopped; the hair on its back stood up. Ahead of us was a stone statue of a large dog sitting as if guarding something. For a moment both the hound and the monument seemed like stone. The hound gazed out over the burial grounds. I wondered what he saw that had made him stop so suddenly. The hound let out a mournful howl. I had never heard a dog make such a sound. “What was it he saw or sensed? There is nothing here,” I thought.” It is just a parody of a cemetery. Dead animals do not need cemeteries. All dead animals. “ But the dog was transfixed; he would not budge. He stared ahead, as if looking into a spirit world. He howled again. And then I felt it too. For a moment we were soul mates in a fearful communion with the life that had gone before us–all life. We were both trespassing in the land of the spirits. My search for a plot had ended.