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Final Solutions

August 28, 2016

New-10-Moses-Casket

It is the last question: When? Our expiration dates are stamped somewhere we cannot see, and its mystery drives us to distraction or obsession until we reach it.

In talking to a person who visits those who know The Date is quite soon, she surprised me by saying that less than 10% die enraged over dying. Faith that this end is not The End helps, but most are just so sick and tired of being sick and tired that they have no anger at facing the prospect of becoming room temperature.

So it was with my father. He was an old 78 when he died. There was no chronic illness save smoking and drinking to great excess, no traumatic injury that caused a cascade to incapacity, incompetency and then loss of life. He had several illnesses in his last decade or two – some scary – but he survived them. He then retired, as his clients and partners reached their term limits as well, and went home to be with my mother, who gave up the notion of leaving him, even serially, as she had for the 15 years before he died. https://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/extremity/

They were a fully bonded couple, though often miserable when I knew them. Joyous drinking had been made desperate after World War 2. Children that were to be the fulfillment of their legacy were not what they expected, and there were yet to be grandchildren.

It was a quiet end for my Dad. He had stopped drinking and smoking by necessity – for the first time in 60 years. He could be surly, as usual, but not drinking meant the explosiveness and attenuation of outrage was simply not there. So a 6 month decline to a short hospital stay and a quiet end seemed merciful to me, as I had never known him to be happy.

Given our family’s circumstances, I was the executor upon his death, and was, at 32, fairly cautious in my insertion into becoming the counselor for many quick important decisions for my mother. But we all knew where he would be buried – Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla in Westchester, New York – a truly beautiful place.

We knew that because his mother was buried there. We had the 1911 literature, contract and defacto deed to the plot where he was to be set next to the Mom he never knew, as she died when my father was one years old. My parents visited the gravesite in the early 1950’s. We had photos of her cast concrete grave marker – a simple base upon which sat a broken Corinthian column – the symbol of a life ended before it reach full  expression – Lucy Hill Dickinson was 27 when she died. She was the only one there, as his father (who buried her at Kensico) was buried in Queens, with his second, and ultimately third wives.

The “deed” clearly said there were 6 spaces-  3 doubled up places for caskets allowed for him, my mother and even the 3 children – pretty neat in its coincidental precision. So it was a surprise when the solemn face of the Cemetery Administrator greeted us 3 days before the funeral. “I am afraid I have some bad news” – in midst of our own unresolved sad state this was like a slap to the face in an otherwise easy slide into transition.

It turned out that the circumstances of Lucy’s death were thrown in our faces 76 years after it wrecked her husband Harry’s early life. Lucy was effectively a spinster at 25 when she met Harry. My grandfather Harry was, by all accounts, not a nice man. He had come to America from Newcastle, England in 1903 without an 8th grade education to play professional soccer, had blown out his knee by 1907 and was a bricklayer when they met. Lucy worked in the textile mills, and from the pictures we had of her she was not a beauty, but apparently they appealed enough to each other to get married.

Marriage meant children – and my father was born within a year or so of the their marriage, in 1909. Lucy died a year after my father was born. I know no details, but Lucy’s sisters in Toronto, who took care of my father after his mother’s death until Harry married his second wife 5 years after Lucy died, were fairly clear: Upon learning she was immediately pregnant again, by a man that was not a nice man, Lucy died having an abortion of their second child.

Kensico Century must have been a pretty distant place for a Brooklyn family in 1911 – as Westchester was essentially farms and summer homes for the rich. But the cemetery was right off the railroad line. Clearly Harry Dickinson wanted to exile his dead wife as far out of sight and mind as possible. The inexpensive cast grave marker was much the worse for wear, but was probably affordable for a bricklayer, especially given the circumstances. But it was more than that.

“I am afraid I have some bad news” was followed by a set of facts that were both sad and mean. Harry had buried the wife who died aborting his second child in the center position in the line of three coffin locations of the gravesite. If located properly, 6 spaces result from the 3 locations when the coffins are set 2 deep – a standard practice. But apparently Harry asked that the center coffin spot not be set at the lower position where 5 other coffins could be buried around and above it, but rather in the middle of the middle position, where no other coffin could be buried next to it, as its middle-middle position mandated disinterment (and disinterment was against contractually obligated cemetery policy).

After betraying his legacy, Harry meant to keep Lucy alone for eternity.

With the funeral a few days away for Harry’s son by her, we scrambled to find another plot within eyeshot of Lucy. At great cost there was an orphan site a hundred feet away from Lucy’s for 6 graves – 3 wide and 2 deep, just like hers. My father was buried low and to the side – allowing for the rest of his family.

But the final solution for my father’s final earthly repository was not reached by finding a burial site. My mother was an interior designer, I am an architect – hence the horrifically garish coffins offered up by the funeral home were both hideous and insanely expensive to us. I spotted a clean simple wood box in a separate room (pictured at the top of this piece) it was lovely in line, detail and material.

When I asked after it, the solemn mortician grimly replied “That is a casket for Orthodox Jews”: it had no metal fasteners, and was made of plain finished solid wood and had a Star of David carved into its underside and embroidered within its cloth interior – and was 1/3 the cost of the fugly alternatives.

Like his father, my father had some nasty aspects to his personality – one tough nut was his outlook on one part of humanity – he had been a reactionary anti-semite his entire life. https://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/holocausts/ He had essentially wrecked my mother’s relationship with her best friend – because she happened to be Jewish, and made life tense with her sister who married a Jew and had converted to Judaism.

My mother and I both thought the meeting of aesthetics, cost and irony found in this final resting nest was irresistible. We opted for the Orthodox Jewish casket, and I opted for its match when my mother died about a decade later.

We repaired Lucy’s broken and failing tombstone and made a new one visible from it of durable granite, per my mother’s design. A simple base has the column shaft and capital laid upon it – set as if it had finally come to rest after being snapped off from its neighbor so long ago. There is room for my sisters there, but my wife and I had to have a clean break from the legacy of sadness and anger these graves try to resolve.

We will be in wood boxes as well, but 9in x 9in. -we will be cremains set within our church’s columbarium, bathed in music and memories as long as it stands, amid the redemptive Grace that escaped Harry and Lucy.

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