The Magazine

Death Benefits

That lives have strikingly different beginnings and wildly various middles, but all have the same ending has a calming effect.

May 21, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 34 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Sentimental, depressive, ghoulish, call it what you like, I happen to enjoy, every few months, a quiet half hour or so at the cemetery. My cemetery of choice is called Westlawn, where my parents are buried. Westlawn is in the dullish suburb of Norridge, northwest of Chicago, on Montrose Avenue, just up from Ridgewood High School, home of the Rebels. My guess is that there are very few Jews in Norridge, apart from the couple of thousand deceased ones buried in Westlawn.

In his late forties, my father bought six grave plots here, certain he would die in Chicago, which he did. Most people in my parents' generation tended to buy burial plots earlier in life. Today, my guess is, most people don't bother, assuming that they will die somewhere more charming than where they are at the moment: in Venice, or New Hampshire, or Thessalonica. My father planned on dying in Chicago, a city he knew and loved and in which he prospered. I feel the same, and have no desire to lie alongside either Balzac or Jim Morrison at Pére-Lachaise in Paris.

My parents are buried in a section of Westlawn called Carnation; there is also a Daisy and a Poppy and a number of other sections named after flowers. To get to it I have to drive through the equivalent of perhaps three city blocks, which gives me a chance to contemplate the now lost first names on so many of the graves: the Lesters and Esters, Idas and Irvings, Sylvias and Sidneys. The impatience of officials at Ellis Island altered lots of Eastern European Jewish surnames, so that on these graves one finds Siskins and Seeskins and Salkins, Feldmans and Felsteins and Fesensteins, Zisooks and Zilbersteins and Zweibs.

Passing these names, I think of the joke about a laundry in Chinatown called Moishe Pipik's, which sparks the curiosity of a Jewish gent passing by. He pops inside and asks a Chinese man at the desk if he might speak to Mr. Pipik. "I Moishe Pipik," the Chinese man says. "May I ask how you come by so odd a name?" "Not know exactly," the man says. "At Ellis Island, I stand in line behind man named Moishe Pipik. When my turn come, man ask my name, I say 'Sam Ting.'"

I usually arrive at the cemetery near noon. Sometimes a funeral will be in progress nearby; occasionally a new grave is being dug. Often, in the middle distance, Mexican women are planting flowers on graves. I rarely see fellow mourners, but then I don't really think of myself as a mourner as I stand over the graves of my parents, both of whom had long and good lives.

I don't attempt to stage conversations with my dead parents. I go to the cemetery chiefly to refresh my memory of them, recalling how good they were to me; and not in any of the showy or psychologically tender-hearted ways of the current day. They gave me freedom, left me on my own; the only thing they kept me tethered to was reality. They were the least highfalutin, the least pretentious, the least airy-fairy people imaginable. And they laughed a lot. I appear at their graveside to express my gratitude to them for these gifts.

Being surrounded by so many dead can lend perspective. I sometimes obtain clarity unavailable to me elsewhere in the presence of these graves: remind myself of how convoluted my thinking is on certain subjects, of the mistaken detours I have allowed myself to travel, of my insignificance generally. Freud said that it is better to be an ancestor than to have ancestors. But the older I get, the more I indulge in something suspiciously like ancestor worship, at any rate in regard to my parents.

I don't stay more than thirty or so minutes at the cemetery. An old custom is to leave a pebble or small stone on a grave marker as evidence that you have visited. Evidence to whom, exactly? The person in the grave, I assume. I am not superstitious but not entirely above superstition, either, and so I always look for and deposit my pebble before departing. If my father saw me do this, he would laugh.

I return from these visits strangely refreshed. The cemetery itself, its grounds carefully manicured, never seems to me oppressive or dreary. The thought that my own remains will one day be here is less alarming to me standing before my parents' graves than it tends to be at a greater distance from them. That lives have strikingly different beginnings and wildly various middles, but all have the same ending has a calming effect. As I drive away from the cemetery, death, far from seeming at all remarkable, seems ordinary, part of the deal, and thereby, somehow, less frightening.