In what felt like thousand-degree heat, we walked to the various available plot sites and began the heart-wrenching decision of where Alyssa should lie eternally. Diane was crying, her whole body trembling continuously; she said she didn't care. And she didn't at that moment, because it was simply too overwhelming to bury your daughter and to be in this mall of death wares, where a man in a bad toupee and a polyester suit was selling waterfront plots for more, gravestones near a mausoleum for less. There was no room and no time for buyer's remorse.
Diane's first shrug of not caring where Alyssa would be buried soon gave way to caring a great deal. They decided to bury Alyssa in the ground. Diane looked for mystical signs to give her direction in burying her child somewhere that signified some small part of Alyssa's life. A butterfly flittingmaybe that was the spot. The shade of a leafy tree: Alyssa would have liked that. We tried to ignore the bugs and heat as we walked from place to place. Diane and Roy were afraid for Alyssa to be alone. She had suffered enough loneliness for one lifetime. I asked my aunt and uncle where they planned to be buried, but they had not decided that yet, until that Thursday. "Maybe you want to be buried next to her so she won't be alone?" I suggested. We looked for a site for three. It got more complicated to locate a plot for three, but it eased the edge of fear just a bit.
You can't be buried just anywhere in a cemetery. Some patches are filled and crowded. New spaces have to be filled systematically. Diane wasn't happy with the new burial area, but she didn't have much choice if she wanted a three-plot site. Roy noiselessly followed her lead. She walked back and forth and then lay down on the ground to see if this was where she too would place eternal roots. "Okay. This is okay. We'll take this," she told our salesperson. Thinking that she came to bury one person, she left that day with three plots. "Do you want the $4,000 marble bench with her name on it for visitation?" said the real estate agent of death, implying that any committed visitor would, of course, opt for it. "No." Diane was done.
Mosquitoes swarmed the grass, and I kept swiping them from my ankles, aware of the small irritations in the face of life's much larger irritations. As we walked, Diane asked questions with urgency.
"What will happen to her soul?"
"I don't know. Nobody knows, Diane."
"What does Judaism say?"
"Judaism says lots of different things, but there's no one answer." Bad answer. I felt foolish saying this, and I knew as it left my mouth how unsatisfactory it sounded. Yet that's what happens when you have a four-thousand-year-old tradition of debate. There is no one answer. No one has died and come back to tell us. Maimonides, the medieval philosopher and physician, says that when we work on our spiritual lives in this world, our souls will live on in another, free of the body, as our bodies go back to the earth. The body holds the soul, but if we don't spend time developing and nurturing the soul, then when the body dies, there is no soul to live beyond its physical casing. I did not tell this to Diane. Words escaped me. She did not want to know about Maimonides at that moment. Every question was really a restatement of one word: why. And for that, there were no satisfactory answers. We were quiet for a while as we thought about Alyssa's soul.
Then we drove to the funeral home to arrange for the burial the next day. Diane was lying across the backseat of the car, quivering with tears. Who drives to a funeral home to bury a child? "Why? Why?" The same question tumbled out again and again. Roy and I said nothing.
We were ushered into an office and sat nervously waiting for the funeral director, who came in suited and somber and extended an arm in handshake and consolation. He had the practiced sad voice of a death professional as he handed me some papers with a list of services. Diane grimly checked the boxes. There was the refrigeration fee, the morgue fee, the tahara (ritual purification), the hairstyling (if necessary), the shemira services, where a person stays up all night with the body reciting psalms, the shroud costs. There was the cost of the casket. Diane looked to the funeral director for guidance and compassion, but the dark wood desk starkly separated those who were grieving from those who were working.
Excerpted from Happier Endings by Erica Brown. Copyright © 2013 by Erica Brown. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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