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Coming to grips with the fact of passing on


My mom and I, we go back and forth on the subject of burial and cremation. Our discussion took a new turn when her youngest, Dominic, proposed that the Martinez family and spouses all go with cremation then have our ashes buried in one place.

“Your brother thinks death is a big reunion and we’ll all be out barbequing,” she says, putting her coffee cup down. “I don’t think he quite understands that we will be the ones barbequed!”

We laugh until we have to pat dry our tears. Mom is a hospice volunteer. She believes in talking about these things.

Lately, she has been leaning toward burial. Better that the children and grandchildren view her body and come to grips with the fact of her passing on. “Besides,” she says. “I heard that what doesn’t burn up, they grind down. Imagine.”

“And that’s any worse than maggots crawling out of your eyes?” I ask.

Times have changed. A mere 100 years ago, my mother’s grandmother, Juanita, would line coffins with scraps of cloth for family or neighbors on the occasion of a death. The “velorio” took place in people’s houses. Later everybody met again to return the body to its home under the fertile earth. God’s little creatures took care of the rest. Mom and I poll Dad about cremation; he is not sure what the fuss is about. He is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps reserves; all he knows is he has a free plot waiting for him in Santa Fe, the state capital, if we choose to put him there.

“The cemetery is visible from the highway,” he says breezily. “You can wave to me whenever you’re driving north out of town.” He reminds me that he wants mariachis at his Mass. My sister, Elena, will not humor us with an opinion. She thinks my mother and I are morbid. The idea of Dad ending up in Santa Fe does not sit well with me; I want my family within a stone’s throw of one another.

Last year on Christmas Eve, I went for the first time to visit the graves of relatives at the old Albuquerque cemetery. My cousin, Cecile, invited me. Every year she assembles “luminarias,” filling brown paper sacks with sand and a votive candle, which she then lights and places near each headstone. Luminarias evolved out of an ancient tradition of bonfires that marked the days leading up to Christmas and that symbolized lighting the way for the Christ child.

“Hi Grandpa!” said Cecile, gently setting a bag down on the ground. I reached in and lit the candle. We set down some more bags with her daughter, son and husband pitching in. At each relative’s grave, my cousin recalled a story I had either forgotten or had not heard.

Everywhere people were setting up luminarias and arranging flowers. Children chased each other. Old people paid their respects, then sat down in lawn chairs and enjoyed a picnic lunch. There was music and even some video cameras. My cousin ran into old friends. This was the place to be if you had gotten lazy about the obits and were not sure who had died and who had survived the year.

We left while it was still light, but it was not hard to imagine how beautiful the cemetery would be after nightfall, candles blazing gold through the brown paper. When I got home, I reported to Mom all I had seen. She was impressed that I was impressed; visiting the graves of dead people always struck her as slightly ridiculous.

My 5-year-old niece, Rachel, is too young to understand any of this -- or so I thought until a few weeks ago. She pressed my mother for details about dying. Mom explained in the simplest terms about physical functions, such as how the breathing ends. Later, Rachel offered her own little insight into death: “It’s like borning, except the opposite,” she announced, out of the blue. “The opposite?” Mom asked.

“Yeah. The opposite direction,” Rachel answered.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001