In the South Davis transport van on the way to University Hospital two weeks ago, when Brooke was on his way to have the procedure for implanting the diaphragm pacer, he was driven past familiar landmarks in the Avenues, where we live. His thought unaccountably rambled in the direction of the Salt Lake City cemetery, which is only a block away from our house, and this led him to reflect for the first time in any serious way since the accident on what to do with his remains. We’d talked about our preferences concerning body disposal from time to time beginning many years ago, when it was our habit to go walking in the graveyard—quiet, green, peaceful, and over the years increasingly familiar. We’d walk around the graveyard after dinner in the summer, when it was still light, often with the kids, teaching them addition and subtraction by figuring out how old the deceased had been. We’d walk from one end of the graveyard to the other by various routes, and we’d come to know some of the notable graves, like John Taylor, who was President of the LDS Church before it renounced polygamy-- his multiple wives are buried there too, including twins. There’s Hrini Whaanga, a Maori chieftain converted to Mormonism in the 19th century. And there’s the one we called Felix Rossiter, a spectre supposed to scare the kids (it didn’t). Even after we discovered the hiking trails in the foothills and so didn’t walk in the graveyard much anymore, we’d still walk there when we had various illnesses—a cold, a sprained ankle, or maybe just a night without much sleep. In those early days, Peggy once even inquired into grave plots, with no particular seriousness, just because we were so familiar with the graveyard, it seemed like part of home. Just the same, we’d mostly assumed we’d want cremation and the scattering of ashes in some significant natural place.
What led up to Brooke’s reflections on burial was that Peggy had been walking there while nursing her little pneumonia recently, and she had told him about her new sense of the suffering that would have preceded many of the deaths represented there. I started to realize, Brooke said, that I hadn’t given much thought to what I’d want done with my body, not for years, which is totally irresponsible. I’d sort of always assumed that I’d have my ashes scattered by loyal friends from the top of Deseret Peak, in the Stansbury Mountains, or Mt. Ellen in the Henrys, or some other often-hiked, beloved mountain. Then more recently, we talked about the magical hollow on our usual short hiking route in the foothills above Terrace Hills Drive, five minutes from our house but completely out of sight of civilization. It’s just above the spot in City Creek Canyon where Brooke’s bicycle accident occurred.
Everyone must think these thoughts but it’s a little like sex, Brooke says, no one talks about it. Then suddenly, riding in the van, I just had this idea, clear, for the first time, that I wanted my body to be buried and wanted a headstone to be over it, and if I’m not mistaken that was about the same time that you started thinking about this too. I mentioned it to you, Peggy, and you said, well I’ve been reflecting on the same thing, since I’ve been taking these walks in the graveyard while I have pneumonia; I get out of breath too easily to take a real hike. When I shared my thoughts with you, Brooke says, saying I thought you’d be horrified, you said instead that you’d had some of the same thoughts yourself.
I thought about a headstone, Brooke said. One standing up, not just flat in the ground, with my name, my dates, and a little epitaph from Keats or Wordsworth or I think Henry Adams. Something that would capture the sense of teaching, perhaps the most essential element of my life. And Peggy said, yes, she’d been thinking about it too, she’s always assumed she’d want cremation and perhaps still does, but there’s something about an old stone in a old cemetery that has a kind of permanence—not permanent permanence, but still substantial—that is somehow comforting.
We confessed these things to each other, many days after the surgery was completed and very successfully so. Peggy fished the cemetery’s price list off the web—remarkably modest, at least for residents. And then as she was driving to the university campus and was going past the gravestone shop that’s on the way—something we’d each driven past nearly daily for thirty years or so—she saw an OPEN sign, stopped and went in.
It’s like stepping back maybe fifty years, a small shop with old wooden cabinets. The man behind the counter could clearly detect that this prospective customer wasn’t “in need”; after all, she was smiling, even lighthearted. “We’ve lived in the neighborhood for thirty years,” she said, “I thought it was time to stop in. There’s no urgency about this.”
“We’ve been here one hundred and twenty-eight years,” the proprietor replied, and that seemed just fine, a place that seemed to as if it couldn’t have changed much in that time, exactly the kind of place you’d trust for something like this.
We’ve been having debates about whether these reflections on the disposal of one’s remains are too personal for the blog. Talking about burial and cremation and remains and death is somehow unseemly, not polite, not proper fare for public consumption. Besides, there seems to be no immediate need: Brooke’s health has been improving over the last year and getting off the vent will improve it still further. And Peggy recovered easily from her pneumonia, not a serious case after all—but always sobering in an older person. Death could of course happen to either of us, any time, with or without much warning. But what we’d like to show is how easy this was to think about, how natural, even though you’d think it would be most threatening of all. After all, Brooke has hovered near death several times since his accident; he has already outlived the expected lifespan after spinal cord injury like his (60% mortality in the first year, we were flatly told, right up front), and our intimates keep subtly reminding us of the risks. We know the risks; but these reflections don’t seem to be related to them.
Thinking about this, Brooke says, has given me a great deal of peace. For the first time I’ve thought about what a grave marker gives other people, especially one with an epitaph like the one I’m thinking about at the moment, a line from Henry Adams, about teaching, which I think of as my life, A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. Having a gravestone with an epitaph can be sort of egocentric, but it gives others a chance to remember in a kind of creative way, to mourn, but to mourn usefully, in a positive way, to reintegrate one’s life. Somebody might just stumble across the grave without knowing who this person was, but be moved by the epitaph, just the way we’ve come across graves when we walk in the cemetery that really move us—like John Taylor or Hrini Whaanga, though not the imaginary Felix Rossiter.
What name? Roger Brooke Hopkins, or more accurately Roger Brooke Hopkins III, or more simply Brooke Hopkins? The first one creates an honor to my father, and creates some continuity. The second seems grandiose, even if it is my actual name, but ever since my college days I haven’t been able to tolerate those numbers tacked on behind. The third, simple one is sort of defiant, as if you could invent yourself by chopping off part of your father’s name.
Names are a problem for Peggy, too. What name? Margaret Pabst Battin? Margaret ("Peggy") Battin? Peggy Hopkins?
But whatever the name, there have to be dates too. For Brooke: Born: Baltimore, March 25, 1942. Died: Salt Lake City, then the date (which each of us will have but none of us knows). Then an epigraph, for family members and friends to ponder, for strangers to discover. Just thinking about it makes me feel very peaceful. It’s a kind of alternative to thinking about an afterlife; this is one way in which one’s presence continues.
Even later, we were talking about it late at night.
Brooke: (on the phone) I like the idea of lying together. (Peggy cries and cries.)