It is a fearful thing to love
What death can touch – Josephine Jacobsen
Chapter 9 – The Tombstone
Some people look upon tombstones as funerary art. I used to, but now I see a tombstone as a memorial showing our love for our dear departed, who must never be forgotten.
Strangely, in spite of all the time we spent exploring old cemeteries when on holiday in Britain, John and I never spoke of our own tombstone. To us death was still far in the future. It was something that happened to other people not us.
We didn’t take funeral plans seriously either. We luckily had joked about funerals years ago so I had rough guidelines. Long before we retired John said his family were cremated and their ashes scattered in the gardens by the crematorium not far from Coventry, England where they lived. I said, “In our family we tend to have traditional funerals with oak coffins. Grandmother would never forgive me if I was cremated.” (Grandmother was buried in 1955). Then I had a brain wave. “If you die first I’ll take your ashes to England. If I die first I get buried here and you’ll have to find another way of getting there.” John said, “But that wouldn’t be fair. You would enjoy both funerals more than I would.” Later he said, “Don’t you think we should be together after death as in life?”
We agreed we would be buried side by side. We shared a common bed during life. We’ll share a common grave after death.
After a traditional burial you have to wait a full year before erecting a tombstone. I am not sure if this is so the soil will settle or so the emotions will have time to settle.
During the first summer of waiting we kept John’s grave covered with flowers in vases and flower pots. Some were plastic, some were silk and some were real. I often picked wild flowers that grew along the roadside as I walked to visit John. I tied them with ribbons and laid them on his grave. We had both enjoyed wildflowers and birds on our daily walks and I was thrilled to find his country cemetery was full of birdsong. It reminded me of the wilderness campsites we enjoyed on motorcycle trips with a riverbank to the west and spruce trees on the other three sides. It is a provincial quiet country graveyard.
When I visited I would straighten John’s flowers and pulled weeds from his grave that will eventually go to grass. Soon I started straightening the flowers on his neighbour’s graves. I’d find John’s flowers rearranged after the wind storms so I knew others did the same.
By fall John had 14 various containers of flowers. The snow covered them and because they don’t snowplough cemeteries in winter, my visits stopped. In early spring, I visited to see the snow had melted around John’s flowers, which looked like a colourful oasis in the snow-covered cemetery. It made me very happy that his grave had looked loved as we waited for a tombstone.
During the summer my sisters and I had visited many cemeteries and studied many tombstones. Eventually we found and photographed the one I like best. I showed the picture to Barry and his family and they approved. In retrospect I think they would have approved of any monument that made me happy.
In January I showed the picture to our under-taker, who sells Summit monuments on the side. He looked at it in horror. I had chosen the most expensive tombstone there is. (See I do have taste). Fortunately we had developed good rapport during the funeral. He knew I was adaptable and eager to consider options as long as they fit the spirit and expressed our feelings. The one I had chosen was so expensive because it was a slab of granite about the size of a queen bed mattress. Would I consider other shapes of stone? He brought me out a big book. I looked at the pictures and said I didn’t like the wording on most of them. He explained that you buy the stone and then you can decide on any words or designs to be put on it. What was important to me? Pictures of Mary and Jesus and a cross and a flower vase, and I wanted a double headstone seven feet long like a headboard. Plus the right words, of course. He told me that just as any words can go on a monument so can any picture and vases can be added. He had several pages of pictures to choose from and if none suited their artists could create one especially for us. Any tombstone shape can be adapted to creatively reflect any life-style.
In the end I chose a tombstone that cost half as much as he one we’d photographed but it looked even nicer. It would be erected in the spring after the frost was gone and the earth settled.
Choosing words for a tombstone is a scary job. It is forever so it can’t be changed and hopefully it will be there until the end of time for all to see.
As I spent the summer looking a tombstones I realized that all conveyed the same message, more-or-less. Some stressed love and some stressed life style while others stressed hope of an afterlife.
I found the following epitaphs in Entwistle cemetery:
Love is forever. I love you and always will.
I wait for the day I will see you again.
Together again in Heaven.
Together, forever. Together always.
Gone but not forgotten.
Every remembered, ever loved.
Fondly remembered by his family.
Forever in our hearts.
Forever in our hearts and memory.
To know him was to love him.
Loved by all who knew him
Our loved one
Sadly missed by his friends
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die
He is always in our hearts. Never will his memory fade
They live with us in memories and will forever.
The trials ended, thy rest is won
May they rest in peace
Peace, perfect peace
As for God, His way is perfect
Beyond the sunset
Now our angel has wings
Forever at peace
A friend gave me her list of epitaphs:
Our loved one sleeps here
Beloved one farewell
Until we meet again
Forever with the Lord
He was beloved by God and man
There are no partings in heaven
A day of duty done, a day of rest begun
Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t heal
At first I was undecided. Should our tombstone be about love, life-style or faith. One friend suggested we could have a motorcycle on his side and perhaps a plume on mine. A rider and a writer. He was my Valentino Rossi. And I was his Emily Dickenson. But I felt there is more. His riding days on earth are over as will be my writing days when I join John
Perhaps it was because we visited so many old graveyards in England and read so many inscriptions. They all seemed to be tuned to the hereafter and what was to be rather than what had been on earth. I was still undecided when I came across this In Memoriam:
When I am remembered
May it not be for my work or play
Or anything I purchased
But for the love I gave away.
John’s epitaph came from Corinthians 5:3
Absent from the body, present with the Lord.
Mine has the same message but is more prosaic:
Parted by Death
Together again in Heaven.
I asked the family what they thought. I was delighted that my daughter-in-law approved. She wrote: “I like the couplets you are having engraved on both sides of the tombstones. What a beautiful reminder of your love for John and God’s love for us!”
Yes, that was exactly how I wanted people to feel.
Names and dates were easier. I used Victorian titles that we both smiled at in an old cemetery. “Devoted Husband” and “Beloved wife”. It could have been beloved husband and devoted wife but he went first. We were both loving and devoted.
I feel there must be a cross on a tombstone. It is there to ensure acceptance into heaven of those whose spirit has been liberated from earth bonds. We both have crosses, but they are part of the pictures. I saw too many tombstones with crosses on top that have broken off, including my grandmother’s
We aren’t having a long verse on the tombstone. They seem to be out of style now in this area. In old English cemeteries thee were many very preachy poems that John and I found amusing, including this one:
Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are so once was I,
As I am now so you must be
Prepare yourself to follow me.
Our tombstone will only reflect love and faith. I decided we can show his life-style with the flowers and ornaments we arrange upon his grave. I have seen graves with cowboy boots, dream catchers, roosters, teddy bears, sports trophies, dog ornaments, plaques with verses, toys, wedding pictures and many other meaningful objects among the flowers. The tombstone is only the beginning. Over the years to come we can add whatever reflects our more modern thoughts and share with John the changes that are taking place in our family.