A humble Cascade tombstone has set people around the world to thinking about how we memorialize our loved ones.
It reminds me of a short story in which the protagonist felt a “requirement” to do something after the death of a loved one. Many of us feel this call to action, to do something to show that our loved one lives on, that death did not win.
For the Menster family, they chose to remember their mother and wife Maxine Menster by sharing the recipe of her famous Christmas cookies on the back of her tombstone. I can only hope that, centuries from now, archaeologists will dig through the rubble of our civilization and find this etched stone, and that they’ll still have the ingredients to make these “ancient” cookies. They might have some troubles with a mysterious ingredient like oleo, the nature of which is already starting to fade into memory. I’m old enough, or have listened to enough older people, to know that “oleo” means margarine here in the Midwest, though apparently elsewhere it can refer to other kinds of oils.
For Maxine’s family, sharing their mother’s recipe embodied her generosity of spirit, and through the years and especially in the last few weeks, this local tribute has taken off and traveled around the world. I found it “shared” by friends who didn’t even know where Cascade, Iowa, was, and I sent a (hopefully polite) correction to an editor of the New Zealand stuff.co.nz (a website I checked regularly when I lived in New Zealand) to explain to them that Cascade was in Iowa, not Ohio.
All this makes us think: how do we honor those who have passed in a significant way? How do we share how they lived their life?
Many choose to make charitable gifts to causes important to the deceased, and families continue traditions, tell stories, pass on mementoes and find family resemblances in younger generations. Some memorial services are touchingly personal and memorable.
But aside from Maxine Menster, gravestones are often boring and impersonal. Apparently, we are more similar to each other in death than we are in life.
When my paternal grandfather died, my father and grandmother erected a tall, narrow tombstone (think “modest obelisk”) with a treble clef on it to signify his love of music. In Galena, people are sometimes more likely to recognize that tombstone than they are some of my living relatives.
In the decades since, gravestones have grown somewhat more personal — I’ve seen headstones etched with John Deere tractors and semi trucks, and photographic enhancements give the cemetery wanderer a glimpse of the person underneath, so to speak.
Nevertheless, given our infinite collective creativity, we could do much more.
Perhaps it’s morbid, but I have a very clear idea of how I want to be laid to rest. The important thing is to keep it cheap: put me in an old pine box, and any old rock will do. But I want a New Orleans-style funeral, with a brass band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I hope the irony won’t be lost on the mourners.
After I’m lowered, I want a potluck, with a heart-stopping array of cheesy funeral potatoes, and a keg of really good beer. Hopefully, by the end, everyone will be having a good time.
I’m just sorry to inform you that, regrettably, I’ll be missing the party.