Lost in memories at family plot

Real Life

September 17, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

My family gravesite is the other Graceland - the one Elvis Presley wouldn't be caught dead in.

The Graceland I'm speaking of isn't an opulent Memphis, Tenn., estate. It's a cemetery carved out of scruffy terrain in overpopulated northern New Jersey; a harried location where the expression "rest in peace" is meant figuratively, much like you might say "Have a nice day!" to a resident of Beirut or Darfur.

Nobody cries at my family's burial services. Well, they cry, but no one can ever hear them. Our grave plots lie literally a hubcap's throw from the eight-lane Garden State Parkway. Imagine being interred on the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A few months ago, I returned to New Jersey with my mother, older brother and sister-in-law. All of us now live out of state. During that visit, we felt obliged to stop by the cemetery, not having been there since my uncle died four years ago.

There are no headstones. The graves are marked with bronze and granite plaques set flat in the ground. This makes it easy for Graceland workers to cut the cemetery grass - but difficult for prodigal sons and mothers to find their loved ones. We were like kids on a weird Easter egg hunt.

"Where's Dad? I thought he was buried closest to the parkway."

"Anybody seen Uncle Paul?"

"Hey! Here's Grandma and Grandpa!"

"I found Dad!"

"Careful ... Don't step on Aunt Rosemary."

Visiting that cemetery always reminds me of a personally inconvenient truth: that some families just aren't made to be rich.

My maternal grandfather, Grandpa Huber, had a pot of money to invest after World War II. This was before the Garden State Parkway was built, way back when the New Jersey shoreline was undeveloped and casino-free.

My grandfather was a gruff mechanical engineer who raised racing pigeons in his backyard. He also had a flock of opinions about everything. One of those opinions was that the Jersey shore, while a great place to fish, was basically miles and miles of beautiful, sandy, worthless real estate. Better to invest in something with more upside potential. Like cemetery plots.

My grandfather bought enough to bury an Army battalion.

On our way to the cemetery I'd asked my mother if she wanted to buy some flowers. "What's the point?" She said. "No one's going to see them."

My mother's right. When she was a girl, people made regular trips to cemeteries on Sundays and holidays. It was part of the quid pro quo of posterity: Tend to the dead and someday the living, in turn, will tend to you.

That's becoming an antiquated notion in modern, hypermobile America. As my family and so many others scatter, cemeteries have taken on the melancholy aura of abandoned farms.

Deprived of easy access to physical touchstones - Easter lilies standing vigil in sunken metal vases, familiar birth and death dates etched in granite- I'd like to think we cling tighter to cherished memories.

In my family, those memories include the time my Aunt Marge, then about 75 years old, wanted a hatchet for Christmas - she had serious yard work that needed doing - or the time Uncle Paul gathered the oddball paint cans in his basement, mixed them all together and set about painting his house on the cheap. The resulting color might best be described as sludge brown. It looked like the first house ever painted with sewer runoff.

We also remember the time Grandpa Huber got into a fistfight in his nursing home - and, of course, the time he refused to be suckered into buying New Jersey shore property, which today costs about a million dollars a square inch.

In a strange way, at least part of my grandfather's get-rich dream did come true. That big investment payoff never materialized. But we own enough unsold grave plots that someday I may be laid to rest at Graceland in a style worthy of an Egyptian pharaoh or the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

Picture a body being lowered into the ground, accompanied by the background music of passing parkway traffic. No coffin, however. There's plenty of room to spare, enough for the deceased to be buried inside his car.

tom.dunkel@baltsun.com

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