This story has been a long time coming. I’ve wanted to tell you about this since last August, but the time has never seemed right. I find it exceptional, maybe even beautiful. Some people might call it a God-nod.
When I was sitting in the ICU waiting room late at night on the 22nd of August, I had to make a decision. I was not prepared. The nurse told us that Beth had passed away quietly. We wept. We prayed. We sat in disbelief.
He cleared his throat and asked me what funeral home I wanted to use.
“Can I tell you in the morning?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.
I could see the remorse in his eyes. “No sir, I really need to know now. We need to move her body tonight.”
So, I gave him the name of Haisten Funeral Home in Griffin. We own a cemetery plot in the Berea Cemetery in Hampton. It never occurred to me that we would need it so soon. Haisten was the only name I could come up with in the moment.
Best I recall, I only got maybe four hours of sleep that night. It was late when we got to the house. We talked for a while into the wee hours of the morning. Although we gave in to the urge to sleep, sleep didn’t come easy. I was restless.
When I got up early and made coffee in the quiet of the house, I began to have second thoughts about using the cemetery in Hampton. I always thought we’d be well into our 80s when this day came. This all seemed too soon. Hampton felt far away.
I’m not much of a cemetery visitor, though I actually like a good cemetery. We’ve made our share of visits to the family plots in Hampton and in Selma, Alabama. I knew there would be occasions when I’d want to visit Beth’s grave. Maybe put some fresh flowers out. Maybe just visit for a few moments. I was starting to think that I didn’t want to have to drive an hour and a half to go do that if the urge struck me.
When the kids got up, we talked about it. We agreed that somewhere close would be better. But where? You can’t just go and buy a cemetery plot anyplace you want. There was no attraction for me to look in Columbus at some of the big cemeteries. I wanted something close to home.
Back in July we were all sitting around the kitchen table one evening talking about where we wanted to be buried. Okay, I was asking the question and all the kids were a little creeped out by the topic. The one thing I remember for sure was that Beth, the schoolteacher, said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t put me in the cemetery in Hamilton on top of the hill. That place overlooks the Board of Education, and I won’t get any rest looking at that building.”
Six weeks later, Beth passed away.
That kitchen conversation seemed uncanny, now. I had no idea where I would bury my wife. The hilltop in Hamilton was out. That left us with the cemetery in Pine Mountain. But I had heard for years that it was sold out. Family names that go back generations. Limited space. The only way to get in was to inherit a plot.
A couple of days went by. I had mentioned my dilemma to no one. Then out of the blue my phone dinged. A text from my neighbor.
“We have a mutual friend that has an offer for you. I don’t want to get into your business, but if you need a place for the burial, he might have an option for you.”
Bear in mind that Beth and I had both agreed years ago that we would be cremated. Her urn, which is really a box made of cherry, still sits on my mantle. There has never been any urgency to any decision about her burial.
The next day I called my good friend, Bill. “We’ve got a plot in the Pine Mountain cemetery,” he said. “You can have it if you need it. Me and Sara have two other places we can go when the time comes. I bought this one years ago when we got married and we’re just not going to need it.”
God just nodded my way.
I went to the city office the next day to ask about the plot. Melinda listened carefully as I explained my need for a burial place.
“Oh honey, you know we don’t have any spots available. This old cemetery has been full for years.” She was genuinely heart broken. The mayor and the city clerk came out and gave me a hug.
I smiled. “Well, Bill and Sara are going to let me have their plot. I’d like to look at it first.”
Melinda took me over to the map on the wall behind her desk and showed me how to find it.
I told her, “I have a few questions. Can I put up a headstone?”
She didn’t hesitate. “You sure can. It’s yours and you can do whatever you want.”
“Can I put up corner markers? Can I plant a tree? Can I put up a bench if I want to?” My list was growing.
“Look here, you can do whatever you want. We don’t get involved in the personal preferences of what people can and cannot do with their burial plots. It’s yours to do with as you wish.”
“Do I have to use a funeral home? Do I need to hire someone to dig the hole? Do I need to notify you when the burial will take place?” So many questions.
Melinda just hung her head and looked over her glasses at me. I was beginning to get the picture. I said, “It’s mine and I can do whatever I want, right?” She nodded.
“Do I need to sign a contract?” She gave me the same look and said, “You just work it out with Bill. I’ll put your name on it, and that’s it.”
I left the city office and turned the corner at the Baptist Church. Three blocks out East Harris Street and I’m at the cemetery. The landscape is full of monuments and markers and wrought iron fences. Many of the names I recognize. I have stood here for more than a few funerals in the last 25 years. At the far east end is the plot that belongs to Bill and Sara. It felt right.
I called Bill that night and told him that I would take him up on his offer. “How much do I owe you? I’ll come see you tonight.”
Bill’s answer shook me. “You don’t owe me anything. Sara and I talked about it, and we want to give it to you. It’s yours.”
Another nod and a wink this time.
All that angst. All my fretting. All of it overrun by a generosity and kindness that still amazes me.
That was August.
Months later, and the headstone and markers are finally in place. In a couple of weeks, we’ll get together to lay my Beth to rest.
I just thought you should know.