There’s always a risk, when you write criticism, that you’ll come off as though you thought your office as a critic put you above what you write about, as though an ironic detachment implies a belittling attitude. I love the monuments even—especially—when I find them cockeyed. This is true of my professional interest in Roman monuments, and true also of my personal interest in American ones.
And it gets very personal. See the flat lawn monument for my parents (figure 1). I last saw it in maybe 2003; my mom recently died, and I’d never seen the updated “finished” product until my brother sent me the photo here.
It hardly deserves to be called a monument. It is a marker, and while these types of flat markers are common, you see them most in those lawn-style cemeteries where vast expanses of open lawn are supposed to exert a calming effect on those grieving. I suppose that those lawn cemeteries make their money with the sale of plots and coffins and maximize revenues by lowering the costs of upkeep: it’s a cinch to mow right over these flat markers, but as you can see on the Bucher marker, no one comes to trim the crab grass that grows horizontally over the stone.
As you’d expect, this is a case where I know the details behind the decision to get this marker. My dad was suddenly diagnosed with cancer in late August 1997, one day before I headed out by car to Minnesota to take up a job at Gustavus Adolphus College. I flew back for the funeral, but my mom, with my brother’s help, had had to take care of the burial arrangements. Her work as a caregiver in the final month precluded her going out to take care of things in good time. Rather, things progressed in unexpected jerks until my dad went into hospice a day or two before the end. Only then did my mom have a chance to shop for a plot, coffin, and tombstone.
As I had known but learned experientially during my mom’s final crisis, at the end the caregiver is exhausted physically and emotionally. Just when some mighty important decisions need to be made, many responsible for arrangements have only the energy to take the path of least resistance, guided by grief, distress, sentiment, and a need to act quickly.
And so my parents ended up with a marker with bare anagraphic data and the cliché of clichés, the praying hands. At least it doesn’t say “Gone to Jesus,” which no doubt they have, but to insist on it seems to imply a nagging doubt. A floral scroll brackets the surname. The sandblasted cutting is cheap but not inexpensive. I do admire the grain in the gneiss, brought out nicely in the polished sections.
There is, therefore, something to be said for the old idea that you should make your arrangements ahead of time, and that puts me in mind of one of my very favorite Latin epitaphs. Its fancy name is “CIL VIII 1027 add. 929″, if you want to look it up. It is of Vitalis, whose name means “lively.” Beware, the verse is shaky at best, and at times the poet has been extry bold in using false quantities for vowels:
Fl. Antigona Vitalis Aug. n.
vivit et convivatur d.m.s. tabellarius
vivit et convivat.
dum sum Vitalis et vivo, ego feci sepulchrum,
adque meos versus, dum transseo, perfruo et ipse.
Dip[l]oma circavi totam regione pedestrem,
et canibus prendi lepores et denique volpes.
Postea potionis calices perduxi libenter;
multa iuventutis feci, quia sum moriturus.
Quisque sapis, iuvenis, vivo tibi pone sepulchrum.
A loose translation:
Flavia Antigona Vitalis, postman of our emperor
while living and having fun while living and having fun
Sacred to their memory
While I am Vitalis and alive, I have built a tomb,
and while I pass by it I can’t help but admire my own verses.
I made the rounds of the whole region on foot with the imperial diploma,
and I hunted hares and even wolves with dogs.
Afterwards I happily raised cups of drink;
I lived my youth fully, because I’m going to die.
Whoever you are, young man, if you are wise,
erect for yourself a tomb while you are alive.