Spray Painting the Grave

We were driving past a cemetery when my eight-year-old asked, “Why are some stones big and fancy and others tiny?” I told her that some people were important, or rich, or maybe their families really missed them and wanted everyone to know it. “And by the way,” I said, seizing the moment, “when I die I don’t want any kind of headstone at all. I just want a big rock, so people can come and sit and think about me.” It’s true. I’ve felt that way ever since I visited Stockholm and saw the grave of Olof Palme, the Swedish prime minister who was assassinated. It’s marked by a giant, natural-looking boulder, with just his signature on it. I’m very comfortable with the idea of returning to the earth, and love the thought of being commemorated by something so … unvarnished. “You can just paint ‘Mom’ on it,” I told her.

She thought about this. “Yeah, maybe Jordan and I can spray paint it,” she said. I chuckled, but I understood where she was going: she was envisioning some key bonding time with her older brother, who’s unfailingly mean to her unless he needs a fourth for an Airsoft gun war, or someone to hold the rope while he rappels down a tree. She knew how much he’d delight in a fresh, new can of spray paint, even if his mother was newly dead. “Can we paint it green?” she asked. I was slightly alarmed by her enthusiasm; clearly she was imagining a fun craft project with smocks. “No! That defeats the purpose of having a plain old rock.” She relented. “OK, maybe just black letters that say, ‘RIP Mom.'” Long pause. “But you’ll be dead so you won’t know!” True, I told her; you can do whatever you want. I didn’t mention the MP3 file I created on our computer that helpfully lists the songs I want played at my funeral–including “525,600 Minutes” from the musical Rent, which I am now reconsidering because it’s become such a cliche that I recently heard a bunch of 13-year-olds singing it at a bar mitzvah.

I’m not dying any more than any healthy, middle-aged person is, and I don’t mean to be morbid or alarm my daughter. She quickly pointed out, after I nixed the green spray paint plan, that she wouldn’t need to worry about it “for a long, long time.” Still, I don’t see any harm in giving her early warning of the inevitable. I believe in confronting difficult subjects head on, in digestible nuggets and whenever they arise organically. But mostly I’m just trying to increase the likelihood that I’ll actually get my way.

About Susan H. Greenberg

Susan H. Greenberg spent 22 years as a journalist for Newsweek Magazine. She now works as a writer, editor, teacher, and parent of three children, with whom she strives always to maintain a varnish-free relationship.
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