The eldercare lawyer recommended that my parents pre-purchase their burial plots. So on an overcast fall morning, I drove my mom to Cemetery Row in Long Island to select a final resting place. As my father is not easily mobile due to arthritic knees, a vestibular disorder, and a neurological condition, he would not be joining us on this field trip.
Yet, Dad had expressed his desire to be buried near his parents. There wasn’t much discussion about this, even though my mom’s parents are buried in the cemetery adjacent. She just didn’t feel strongly enough about it. So if this was important to my dad, she’d go along with his wishes.
Growing up, my parents, my sister, and I would visit the cemeteries once or twice a year. It was always the same—Dad navigating slowly through the narrow roads, mom scanning the headstones, my older sister and I quiet in the backseat, aware of the solemnity of the occasion.
We’d stop first at my father’s relatives. Exiting the car and approaching the plots, my sister and I would pick up small round stones. Mom would tie a kerchief on her head, while Dad retrieved three essential items from the trunk: yarmulke, prayer book, and the stiff, straw hand broom. At the graves, Dad would crouch down on his knees to brush the dirt and sand out of the engraved letters and numbers of the headstones, which lay flush to the ground.
In the ritual of brushing over his father’s name, date of birth and death, and the inscription, “Beloved father, husband, grandfather,” my dad would soften, weaken, and begin to talk aloud. “Oh, Apu, how I miss you,” he would cry and bow over to kiss the cool marble. Seeing my dad this way always made the rest of us weep.
Once composed, he would rise, place the velvet yarmulke on his head, open the prayer book, and recite the Mourners’ Kaddish. He’d pass the book to my mother, then my sister, and then I would recite a prayer for the grandfather I never met, yet somehow loved fiercely. Stones placed on his headstone and on the headstones of great aunts and uncles, we’d retreat back to the car and take the short drive to the bordering cemetery, to my mother’s family. There, my father would complain about the overgrown evergreens blanketing my grandmother. Sometimes he would bring gardening tools and shear them himself, muttering about “perpetual care.” Reciting prayers, placing stones, my sister and I would comfort our mother while wiping away our own tears, mourning for yet another grandparent known only through pictures and stories.
Now at the cemetery with my mother, we respected my father’s request and met with a representative from New Montefiore Cemetery, a pleasant gentleman who presented us with our options. At the higher price point, we could select two plots several feet away from a tree, off of a paved pathway, in a relatively low traffic area in the general vicinity of my grandparents. Nice enough. Or for a price slightly more affordable, my parents could for life eternal listen to the soothing sound of cars whizzing by on the Southern State Parkway. Or not.
I asked Mr. Cemetery if he could show us something somewhere quieter. While this would be a distance from the plots of Morris and Adele Simon, my paternal grandparents, we decided to take a look anyway. For the same lower price, we trekked to the opposite side of the cemetery to a desolate grouping of headstones standing starkly in a patch of yellowing grass. As if the scene wasn’t depressing enough, behind these plots, the mourner faces an industrial park and a dump. To me, the future mourner, this was not an option.
Then Mr. Cemetery thought of another spot, at a cost in between the others. He led us towards the rear of the property. These plots were on a pathway, facing a lovely tree, with more trees bordering the burial ground on the left. And it was quiet. Yes, this will do, Mom and I concurred. I took a picture of the area with my phone to show my father. We thanked Mr. Cemetery and said we’d get back to him with our decision.
In the car heading out of New Montefiore, I had a thought and suggested to my mother that we drive up the road to Wellwood Cemetery where her parents are buried. Just for informational purposes. Let’s see what $3700 can buy you there. She agreed.
With no appointment, we found our way to the main building and sat down to talk with another nice enough guy. He located my grandparents on the deeply creased, yellowing map, and said yes, there are plots available in that area. Mr. Nice Enough chauffeured us deep into the grounds where Jack and Sally Kay rest. Referring to the map and surveying the land, we walked over to their graves.
And there, directly behind Jack and Sally, were two empty plots available for purchase—one for Mom, the other for Dad. The decision had been made for us—based not on cost or noise or views or my father’s wishes, yet those factors are what led us here to this place and to this moment. It was bashert, meant to be. When the time comes, in 120 years, my mom will lay head to head with her parents and alongside her husband.
So what was my dad’s reaction when we returned home and described to him our findings? My father needed no convincing.
At first I was resentful of my sister that this morbid task was left to me. I can’t remember why she wasn’t available that day. But now I know I was supposed to be there, guiding the events that transpired. The fact is that one day I will be the one brushing dirt from the crevices in the marble, covering my head, and reciting Kaddish, with my sons comforting me, the bereaved.