Avant garde tombstone, anyone?

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

In France, a new kind of grave stone — avant garde, irreverent, meaningful, amusing to some, annoying to the rest — has sprouted in a cemetery in Montmartre, the historically subversive, bohemian area on the Right Bank of the Seine in Paris. The unusual tombstone is the brainchild of a few artists, writers and other marginals who have paid their money to reside into eternity with saguaro-cactus-as-tombstone.

The cactus is a carved stone. With its five arms, or digits, the middle cactus arm sticking up, it looks like a rude gesture. We in the U.S. call it flipping the bird, a benign metaphor. In France it is le doigt l’honneur, a pretty phrase that means literally the digit of honor and metaphorically carries the same crass meaning as ours.

I’m not looking to install anything vulgar, but I am interested in something different for my tombstone. I’ve been looking for some time and found nothing of interest, so I was delighted to read about the Montmartre gang figuring out a place for all of their urns watched over by a meaningful marker. I’m taking names for who’d like to join me later on in the Jefferson cemetery with an unusual type of tombstone. Not a cactus — we would have to come up with our own significant art — but something outside the usual slender rectangle in marble planted at one end of a six-foot-long piece of grass under which lies a casket.

I’ve always figured I’d be buried here in Jeff, no matter where I roamed; or at least have a stone here, my ashes distributed wherever my children travel. My father is buried here; my mother is not. My husband is buried here, but his stone is one of the flat military types — you can’t read it from the road even if there were room for my info on the face of it. My one sister is buried in Houston, my other sister has her stone established here, waiting. I have grandparents in Scranton, grandparents and great-grandparents in Perry. My children will never come to Jefferson to lay flowers on my grave. None of the above is really material; I want a tombstone here because it’s my hometown and I love it.

So, as time is passing, I’ve come to the age when I realize I better decide on my marker or someone else will have to do it for me. I like the French writers’/artists’ communal idea, sharing eternal space with other like-minded souls. Spouse-less, family preoccupied with their own stones far away, we could be a gathering of friends who once read poetry together in one another’s living rooms or talked politics at Prairie Blue and books at The Bean or all of the above on a country porch or while walking along the bike trail.

I like the idea and the actuality of the traditional stones in a row naming names, death and birth dates, spouses, kids. As folks drive by, they say, “Oh, yeah, remember her?” Or, “There certainly were a lot of Irish in this town.” I want them to look at my stone and perhaps say these things and then, “Wow, did you see that one?” or “Interesting!” or “Whatever was she thinking?”

What I’m saying is that I want to be noticed in my gone-girl status and that I’d like to share my resting space of vital stats with friends.

The Montmartre bunch hired Patrick Chappet, sculptor, to design and erect their cactus with its needley arms and plant idiom indicating transformation (life to death and regrowth, etc.). Some of the folks who might be interested in joining me in this area are poets, writers, artists — one is a sculptor — so they could probably come up with a fitting stone. I’ve always been partial to trees, so perhaps it could be a stately stone tree with our initials carved in the trunk, our urns planted nearby.

There have been periods of tombstone art that people have flocked to – the dead tree trunk era, and then the angel period – usually for the young, adults seldom being considered angelic dead or alive.

I also like squirrels a lot, but I do not want a giant squirrel looking over my name or urn or ashes. I like cats and dogs only in the abstract and am not a pet owner, so neither of them would work for me. Birds are nice – maybe an eagle, a great blue heron.

I like the idea of a big book, pages open, our names listed. Or an easel with half-finished art on it. Maybe a metal sheet of paper with part of a Dickinson poem: “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops at all.”

There is a very beautiful car tombstone in the Jefferson cemetery, east side. It is touching, for the fellow who loved cars and racing died young. I can imagine a bicycle rider designing a stylized bike as marker. Or maybe a boat owner w/ sails marking his plot. Or how about thiz – a replica of your house? A printing press. A giant ball of yarn with needles in it. A stone quilt. A stone quill. A sandstone rosebush or soybean plant, a huge vase of many-colored zinnias or a row of 10-foot corn stalks. Surely someone here in the state of more pigs than people would want a pretty pink porker.

If this tombstone-as-art-indicative-of-the-deceased-below caught on in Jefferson’s repository of the dead, we might eventually wind up with one of the weirdest and most interesting cemeteries anywhere. Paris has at different times been the center of the universe, often because of its art – even now, within its cemeteries, but why not Jefferson?

Some of us do know that Jefferson, not Paris, is the true center of the universe anyway, whatever presides in our cemeteries.

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