A large delivery van pulled up in front of our house. It came as Laura and I were standing near our front door looking out. It came at just the day and time it was supposed to.
Stepping out onto the large concrete porch, we watched as the driver put a small pallet with a package on a dolly.
“Where would you like it?”
“Right here,” I said, “on the porch.”
“You sure?” Laura asked.
I watched the driver closely as he set it down. His eyes avoided mine, and his intermittent smile was friendly but awkward. I wondered if that was his personality, or if it was the package. Did he know what it was? He must have.
“Do you know how much it weighs?” I asked.
“Two hundred pounds.”
There was a time, a long time, when its weight seemed infinite, too heavy to contemplate. But that time had passed as we took delivery of a headstone for our son.
More than once in the ten years since Paul died – in a wreck the day before Thanksgiving – more than once we had tried to take up the task of getting a marker in place. It was a task made of smaller ones that were not small but mountainous, and at first we could not begin to think of tackling them. The first attempt came only two months after the funeral. I picked up a catalog of headstones from the funeral home. The first task, I suppose, is choosing a design, then the words, then the color of stone. At our dining table I thumbed through its pages and found a section depicting the designs for children and infants. I brushed my tears from the pages, closed them and returned the books.
Sometime later, a year or more, Laura did the same. Looking at gravestones for children, it turns out, is not chicken soup for the soul. The weight of the stone, our stone, was more than we could lift. The weight was not the mass-times-gravity of a chunk of granite cut from a quarry in Vermont. It was our grief – which was more like our hearts cut from inside of us, broken, crushed. Are there words for that to cut into stone? Then mark his grave with that.
We did not go back to the books. Instead, we considered what the stone should say. For me, this was the real difficulty. Paul lived for just a little less than fourteen years. But a headstone, this stone, is supposed to say something about the person buried beneath it. A headstone is a memorial, after all. The thought sickened me a little of having to choose only a few words, a single phrase, to sum up the person who is Paul Dehner. I didn’t want to do it. And not wanting to, unable to bring myself to it, I didn’t, for years.
I was only adding to the weight of the stone. It would never become lighter if I was standing on it. Over time, I came to relieve the stone of its burden. It did not need to carry a lifetime. It did not have to hold memories, or stand for love. It would mark a place, a temporary place, an allotment of the earth given to hold and receive a body back to itself — but not Paul himself, who lives forever, whose memories are kept by God, who is missed in ways that can never be committed to a few, bitterly few, words.
The stone became lighter and eventually we came to see that it was a small thing, or at least, small enough. We die, and most of us are forgotten when everyone who knew us has also died. The memory of our lifetime can only outlive us by less than a hundred years. Then, our gravestones will be passed in the cemetery by people looking for a different, fresher one. Someone may look at my grave and wonder who is buried there. The stone is there to tell them. For those who know the deceased, it marks a place to visit, to remember, to mourn.That’s all.
But it did take ten years. Now we are ready to place the stone. Today the funeral man came and took the stone away, and in a few days we will meet at Paul’s grave to see him set it in the ground.
We ended up ordering the stone from a company in California. And yes, we chose the words, and then the design, and then the color. We worked with them through several drafts of the design. Laura did most of the initial work, sharing as she went with my mom, and asked me to select a verse of Scripture to include. Finally we chose the kind and color of granite. It’s a flat red granite stone with Paul’s name on top and a Celtic cross centered beneath. On either side, are the dates. Instead of saying, “Born” and “Died,” recalling his love of performing, Laura wrote “Opening Night” and “Final Bow.” Across the bottom, in italics, from 1 Corinthians 2:9:
No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined
the things God has prepared for those who love Him.
After some adjustments to the design, we approved it. They cut it, polished it, and sent it.
+ + +
The Hillside Cemetery lies seven miles north and mountain-ward from our town, on the gentle slopes rising to the Coastal Range, founded in 1887 by pioneers who settled the area, and whose descendents still manage and care for it. Among them are some friends who offered us a plot when we suddenly needed one ten years ago.
We drove out with our daughter Elyse, to find a man about our age finishing the work. A couple of shovels and half a bag of sand lie between him and the open tailgate of his pickup. It was raining only faintly, and a mild wind swept the slopes. Kneeling in the well-soaked turf, he poured water across the shiny face of the stone, and brushed off the sand that framed it in the ground.
Our conversation struck me as strange; perhaps more for what was not said. Yes, Laura asked him about caring for the stone, and he explained that keeping the engraved portions clean with a brush was most important. He also talked about how long the painting in the lettering should last – about five to ten years, after which it could be re-painted if we like. But the stone, and the inscription, they would last forever. Or, I thought, as close to forever as anyone would care about.
We talked about our own arrangements. I want a burial, Laura cremation.
“Have you thought about being green-barreled?” he asked me. “If you’re environmentally-conscious.”
“You mean putting me out with the trash?”
“No, buried,” He said. “No casket, no box, just wrapped in a shroud and put in the ground.”
Laura was surprised that it was legal to do that. Not in the city limits, he said, but out here, it is.
“Oh, yeah. I think I’d like that.”
Then he explained the downside to cremation.
“It has a huge carbon footprint, because it uses so much fuel. If you drove an SUV from here all way across the country, to DC, and drove back as far as Colorado, you would burn the amount of fuel it takes to reduce a single body to ashes.”
“That would explain why it’s so hard for me to burn calories.”
But in the course of talking, as we stood next to Paul’s grave, and stood over the stone, he mentioned that he’d also lost his son. Yet, apart from muttering, “I’m sorry,” which I don’t think he heard, none of us offered our sympathies, and I thought it was odd, a funeral director not offering any condolences, until it occurred to me, looking at the dates carved in the granite: it’s because it’s been so long. Ten intervening years. The lightening years, the softening, normalizing, easing years. They were long and hard – long enough, I suppose, that condolences might not be thought in order. Long enough that the sorrow is not such a stabbing pain. They were years that could bring devastated parents to smiling and laughing at the graveside where on that ever-receding day they had wept inconsolably, canopied from a downpour.
Now we listen as the funeral man tells of disinterring someone who died in 1968 – “There was nothing left of him except a few vertebrae. But his polyester suit and tie was good as new: it was perfect.” – and we all laugh.
We tried to remember how Paul had been dressed, but couldn’t be certain – another memory lost in the awful, swirling haze of grief over a son lost and a daughter yet in a coma. We remembered the simple but beautiful wooden casket a friend had made – Paul’s youth leader at church, and how Paul’s friends had gathered together to write messages on the inside of the cover – words of love and sorrow and farewell.
If our grief has lightened over years, it’s still heavy, hard, sharp around the edges, and insoluble against the years of our remaining lifetimes. But like the stone, it is a lighter, a bearable sorrow, a thing we don’t want to have or to need, but which we can and we must.
Planted in the dirt and grass, the marker is surrounded by the life of the ancient hills draped with bean-rows and vineyards, evergreens and yearly-renewed flora – life that stubbornly goes on, indifferent to death or graves, to past pains and sorrows. Grief is also like this: it moves little, if at all, as life and the world go on their way.
The stone is here at just the day and time it could and should have come, for our sakes and the sake of everyone who loves Paul’s memory. It will outlast us all, past the day that each of us who knew him in this world will greet him with inexpressible joy in the next, lighter than light.