My father will be dead a year ago tomorrow and we still have no gravestone. A simple wooden cross – an “X”? – marks the spot where he, or his body at least, now lies. But nothing else. The now settled soil is overhung by large gum trees, and surrounded by equally settled soil, a newer part of the graveyard with a peppering of newish headstones.
The fresh Fremantle breeze whooshes through the gums, dappling the ground in light and shushing us as we stand there. Never mind “begin afresh, afresh, afresh” as Philip Larkin had the trees of May whispering. This is more a call for solemn quietude.
As a child we drove past this graveyard several times a week on our way to Fremantle or to friends. It has filled up in the ensuing forty years. In actual fact it’s crammed, with few vacancies left. Just as well in these neo-pagan days that cremation is all the rage.
Just outside the gate the rumble of traffic on the four major roads that bound the graveyard continues unabated, louder and busier than it ever was in my childhood, and it seemed busy then. Life waits for no one.
Death, however, waits for everyone. And that’s something our increasingly secular culture struggles to accept. Even Christians no longer walk through the graveyard on the way to the church door, a reminder if ever it were needed that they too will go the way of all flesh. As a child in Northern Ireland, Sunday afternoons were sometimes spent in ancient graveyards of ancient stone churches, luridly white sheep peppering the shocking green fields in the background.
Last time we visited Dad’s grave we took a walk and read the other gravestones. It’s surprising how many temporary grave markers there are. Waiting for a headstone. Waiting for someone, or a number of someones, to get themselves sorted enough in their lives to organise one.
It’s surprising too how many people died young. Very few centuries and lots of sixties and seventies. We like to think our generation will increasingly make the ton. As if that were some sort of victory.
This ongoing lack of headstone is a reflection on my year. A year in which many things were going to get done, but got pushed back another month, and pushed back, and pushed back until the December cupboard was so full it was near to exploding. So my father’s now settled grave sits waiting the headstone that we are planning for it. One more thing that got pushed back in this year of push backs. It will be done by February, I say, as if to reassure myself that I am on to it.
This is not to say the memory of my father was neglected. To the contrary the finality of placing that marker, plus the small family ceremony that will accompany it, will mark an end of something that has been hard to end – a year of grief. I am not sure his gravestone-less grave is a matter of oversight, or a matter of insight; a decision to hold off until the time has come for us to settle along with his grave.
Grieving for my father was as much about the loss of opportunity to repair as it was about the loss of him altogether. Some things never were resolved and now never will be. That’s a salutary reminder to set all-year resolutions, never mind new year ones.
My daughter reminded me yesterday that my grandfather died the day my father and mother moved house, back in 1966. Indeed he keeled over stone dead of a massive heart attack while helping them move. Of course my own father died the day we moved house too. In all of the year that has gone I had not thought of that coincidence. We move house again in a month.
The gravestone we will choose will be a simple Celtic cross. Mum feels that this is befitting a simple man, with simple tastes who, for all of his prodigal wandering, clung to that cross at the end of his days as if his life depended on it. Which of course it did.
A simple Celtic cross for mum means “let’s not go to too much fuss.” Mum never wants to go to too much fuss. Sometimes she makes a fuss of doing so. But in this instance she is right. The lavish tombs and sculptures of the surrounding graves speak of hope grounded in this age. Such opulence is akin to the pyramids and pomp of Egypt. The cross speaks of freedom from slavery, of dying while yet living, of living while yet dying. A cross is all Dad’s grave needs. It says “I’m with Jesus.” Which of course he is.
Eight years ago this month I lay in hospital getting a biopsy for suspected pancreatic cancer. Turns out it wasn’t, or I wouldn’t be here. By some quirk of gallows humour fate, the TV high in the corner of the room was playing an infomercial for planning one’s own funeral; full of happy old people, smiling having lived life to the full and just waiting for a rest. They were being told how they could remove the burden from their loved ones by sorting it all out “NOW, AND FOR AS LITTLE AS TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS!”
The old man in the bed next to me asked me what I was in for. Then he asked my age. 42! Seemed old at the time. I told him although I was ready, I didn’t want to die just yet. He turned to me and said “I’m 82 and I still don’t want to die!”
He looked ill then so I can’t imagine him having reached 90. But one thing I remember doing was looking out the window of the hospital as I lay there. A Catholic school was in view, or its roof at least. Mercedes College, producing bright young women full of vim, vigour and life.
And a sign of death on its roof, as I looked. A sign of death that was my own hope of life, regardless of the biopsy’s outcome.
We do not know what the year will bring forth. We don’t know what the day will bring forth. Nor what that short drive to get the milk our wife told us to get this morning, but which we’d forgotten, even though we came home with coffee and toilet paper.
But we do know that the grave has been conquered by Jesus. We do know that one day, gravestone or not, my dad, and millions of others will rise from their graves to embodied life eternal. And his headstone, lovingly if not tardily chosen by us, will topple, no longer needed, into that empty space.