The process of settling down and starting a family is often referred to as “putting down roots.” Roots are the part of a tree that is buried underground. Roots in human terms usually refers to those relatives who are buried underground, our ancestors who came before us. One of the reasons we bury our loved ones is to remind future generations of where they came from, who came before them.
This leads me to a question that I rarely ask myself, but when I do, I never come up with a satisfactory answer. It’s something that I really should resolve before too long. The question is this: where do I want to be buried?
First, to be clear, wherever I end up being buried, I’d prefer that it not happen until I am indisputably dead. Please, make sure that no voodoo witch doctor has put me under a temporary spell, or worse, that I am not the victim of some administrative foul-up and buried alive, while some dead guy keeps getting my monthly AARP magazine. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a simple double check. It can be as easy as having me fog a mirror, or pinching my arm, or showing me a photo of Megan Fox.
Once it’s been verified that I am indeed dead, the question remains: where should I be buried? Like planning a new business, determining a final resting place comes down to three things: location, location and location. I’d like to be in a shaded and dry spot – I’d prefer not to be in a flood plain, for example. I’d also like for it to be relatively quiet – there is nothing I hate more than the sound of interstate traffic whizzing by. Not that it is going to keep me awake or anything. Most importantly, I’d like to be buried where family and friends can visit me, where there is at least someone familiar with the name on my headstone. I’d rather not be buried with anonymous people who are complete strangers – I’m afraid that in death, I will be just as self conscious and shy as I was in life, and it’ll take too much out of my eternal afterlife getting to know the strangers in the plots next to me. In fact, with my luck, I’ll probably end up buried next to an insurance salesman.
So, just as my daughter is searching for the right college, I need to determine the right cemetery. Like college, I’ll have to make sure I can afford the fees and meet the entrance criteria, which usually consists of being dead, while many of the better cemeteries also demand affiliation with a religion. I do not belong to any church. In addition, any hopes of an athletic scholarship are unlikely, because one, I am not much of an athlete, and two, most cemeteries have cut basketball from their programs. So the list of eligible cemeteries has narrowed to a few candidates.
The first option would be the Gourdoux family plot in the Saint Francis of Assisi cemetery overlooking the Chippewa River in the northwestern Wisconsin community once known as Flambeau. This would make sense because it is where many of my ancestors are buried, starting with my Great Grandfather, Alex Gourdoux, who came from France to settle in the area in the late 1860s. My grandparents and many of my other relatives are buried within the reach of the late afternoon shadows cast by the family marker. This is some of the prime real estate in the entire cemetery, under a massive old oak tree and a stone’s throw from the church. The problem is that in order to qualify for this location, you have to be Catholic, which is why my Mom is buried on the other end of the cemetery, in the non-Catholic section, where she waits for my Dad to join her under the headstone with their names, with the date of my Dad’s death waiting to be filled in.
Despite being non-Catholics, Flambeau makes sense for my Mom and Dad’s final resting place. It is only a couple of miles from where my Dad grew up, and about a mile away from where they first met on a New Year’s Eve in 1950 or 1951, and just down the road from where they lived for the last 12 years of my Mom’s life. It would make some sense for me to be buried somewhere near my Mom and Dad, because before I was anything else I was their son.
The problem is that I never really lived in the Flambeau area. We lived in Chetek, about 20 miles away, the first two years of my life, before moving to Milwaukee in 1960, and then moving to the small town of Union Grove in Southeastern Wisconsin in 1962. As picturesque a location as the Flambeau cemetery is, it somehow doesn’t seem right to be buried in a community that you never really lived in.
That would leave as the next option the Union Grove cemetery, in the town I lived in from the ages three to 18, and again from the ages 21 to 22. This would make sense as it is the place where I grew up.
The problem with Union Grove is that I moved out for good when I got married in 1981. My parents left in 1983 when my Dad retired, and slowly the remaining Gourdouxs left, too, the last ones about ten years ago. Not a single Gourdoux is buried in Union Grove, and it wouldn’t make sense for me to be the first. It’s been thirty years since I left, and I have long lost contact with anyone who might still live there. Once upon a time, it was home, but not anymore,
In 1984, my wife and I moved to Pleasant Prairie, where we still live. Over the years, we have added on to the house, and we raised our children here. It has been everything one could ask for in a home.
Pleasant Prairie, though, like a lot of 21st century suburban communities, is what they refer to as a “bedroom community”, meaning that most of its residents commute to work outside of town. This has been true for me, as for 24 of the 27 years we’ve lived here I worked in Illinois, and the other three years I worked in Milwaukee. This means that most of the friends I’ve made over the years have been co-workers who don’t live in Pleasant Prairie. While for years I was involved in the community as a youth league coach and met many wonderful parents, few lasting friendships have been made.
Being a “bedroom community”, Pleasant Prairie is largely comprised of housing developments and an industrial park. There is no downtown, and most shopping is either done in Kenosha or Illinois or at the outlet malls that have been installed near I-94 to cater to Chicago and Milwaukee shoppers. Instead of neighborhoods, there are subdivisions. We live on a one-way street that was one of the earliest housing developments in the town, having been converted from farms about sixty years ago, but it really isn’t much different from the modern subdivisions that proliferated and consumed most of the remaining farmland in the 1990s.
One thing the village planners seemed to have overlooked, when approving all of the new subdivisions, was what to do with all of these people when they die. I am unaware of a public cemetery anywhere in Pleasant Prairie Designed for workers who drive great lengths to their jobs every day, apparently it is expected that when dead, they make one last commute to wherever their final resting place might be.
So the issue remains unresolved. It strikes me that, as society becomes more mobile and families are more spread out, I am probably one of many who have the same question. The old you get buried where you lived paradigm seems like it was designed for a simpler time. Everything seems to be more complex these days, even death, and the simple concept of leaving behind a marker to be remembered by, to prove to future generations that you were once here, is no exception.
Maybe the answer lies in technology. Maybe I could be buried on the internet, dead but on line in a virtual grave in a virtual cemetery. This way, not only could acquaintances from all stages of my life easily visit me, but the 1,000th visitor could win a free weekend in Vegas.
It turns out my life had meaning after all.