Bookmarking death: purchasing a plot with Jesus

“So how many bookmarks do you need?” My blank expression led Jesus to realize that I obviously needed more information, so he continued. “We usually give you six bookmarks, but if you’d like, I can arrange to give you more.”

Handing over a hefty three-ring binder, he pointed to the styles of bookmarks that were available. I looked over at my sister, whose expression was every bit as bewildered as mine. My brother-in-law, my wife, and my father were equally confused.

“Now, we can only give you one style. You can’t get … for example … three of this one and three of that one.” Jesus paused and nervously waited for our reply.

We were sitting around a cluttered table in a cemetery’s office. None of us were particularly opposed to buying bookmarks, but we shared the impression that we were at that table to buy a very small piece of real estate. One of those three-by-seven chunks of earth that most people call cemetery plots. So I guess we couldn’t be faulted for being thrown when Jesus greeted us by asking about bookmarks.

None of us had ever shopped for burial spaces, so we really didn’t know what to expect. We assumed that it was something that John, the genuinely friendly and helpful funeral director, would handle on our behalf, but we learned that his long list of services didn’t include realty work. (The only discomfiting moment there came when we entered the casket room, which was only a few balloons shy of looking like a car dealer’s showroom. My favorite casket was painted in a golf motif, and was called “Fairway to Heaven.” No, I’m not making this up.)

As we walked out of John’s well-appointed conference room, we planned our next steps. We needed to act quickly, because my mother’s funeral would take place in a day and a half, and it’s customary to identify the casket’s destination before the ceremony begins. However, none of us had given any thought to which of the area’s many marble orchards would provide the best resting place — and how exactly does one browse cemeteries?

My grandmother and most of my mother’s other relatives had long been buried in a cemetery located in what had become a war zone in the nearby city. The thought of planning a funeral while dodging drive-by gunfire dissuaded us from tradition’s dictates, and by something resembling default, we opted for a large suburban cemetery. We had attended funerals there, and it seemed nice. Trees. A pond. A nice variety of marble and granite. Besides, Dad knew one of the founders.

Had my mother been an active participant, the process would have been strikingly different. Her family believed in treating the dead with great respect and gnashing of teeth, even when they hadn’t been on speaking terms with the deceased for decades. They simply couldn’t do enough for the departed, dearly or otherwise. But my father’s family approached death differently; focusing on treating people well in this life and not paying all that much attention to what happens after the last breath. Like many Swedes, they preferred the simple practicality of cremation. My sister and I had grown to adopt that philosophy. Yes, we missed my mother, but didn’t think the best way to honor her memory was to mine the largest chunk of granite we could find. (However, had we chosen cremation, she would have haunted us forever.)

That’s how we wound up across a table from the nervous Jesus, who also seemed to be a newcomer to this cemetery business. Once we determined that six bookmarks would be plenty, thank you, we inquired about ground.

Jesus launched into a spiel about the many sections of the cemetery; so many, it seems, that there must be a special section for left-handed Latvian dwarves who were rabid NASCAR fans. We politely interrupted him and explained that we didn’t need a special section, just a nice piece of ground that was currently unoccupied.

That startled him, but he pointed to a particular area and began to describe its beautiful scenery. Again, we interrupted him, thanked him for his kindness, and gently pointed out that Mom probably wouldn’t have much use for the view.

His mood made a noticeable decline and he talked about a newer section at the edge of the cemetery. Not much of a view, not too many trees, not too fancy, but okay. We agreed, adding that the section would be perfect.

The next task for Jesus was to identify an available plot in the section. He walked out of the room and came back with a large chart bearing hundreds of rectangles. About a third were white; the rest red. He told us that the red ones were plots that had already been sold. At that moment, I realized that the red ones had been colored in with crayons, and not very neatly at that. After several more minutes of options, I pointed to a rectangle. “How about this one?”

He opened another binder to show us how my mother’s casket would be situated in the plot. My sister and I looked at each other in horror. There was a diagram of plots, and each was occupied by a stick figure. Half of the stick figures wore triangles that were supposed to represent dresses. I believe that was the moment when my sister reminded us that we needed to be leaving soon, so Jesus took us outside and told us to follow him out to our chosen plot.

When we reached the section, he climbed out of his truck and began to wander around with obvious frustration. After a couple minutes, I realized that he couldn’t find the plot. I looked at the numbering system and located it within fifteen seconds. He kept looking as I called, “Hey! It’s over here!” He walked over and we all agreed that it was perfect. We shook hands and drove out of the cemetery as quickly as we could.

We didn’t see Jesus again, but when we arrived at the funeral home for the visitation, John brought us an envelope. He had a puzzled look on his face and said that a man named Jesus dropped it off for us. Inside was a scrawled note thanking us for our business and saying that he had been happy to arrange something special.

A dozen bookmarks.