In L.A. you see a lot of everything – homeless people pushing carts with Lakers’ flags attached to each side; label-wearing dog-owner snobs with designer purses housing their miniature barking children; freeways jammed bumper to bumper – Bentleys, BMWs and Buicks alike; red carpets; paparazzi and plenty of weave. What you rarely see are funeral processions. No hearses which contain the remains of a life once lived. No limos with grieving relatives. No stream of cars whose luminescent lights signal the trail of sorrow at a loved one’s passing from this life to the next. In the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve witnessed one funeral procession. One. My daily commute, on average in totality, to and from work equals almost three hours. Five days a week. 48 weeks a year. Do the math. ONE funeral procession. People die daily. I’m not being morbid. It’s true. Cemeteries in L.A. are few and far between. It begs the question, “Where are all the bodies being buried?” (I know. Sounds like the pitch for a new horror flick or an inquisitive line of dialogue written for Ice T on the latest episode of Law & Order SVU…). Could there be a greater cremation rate here than in the small southern city where I grew up? Maybe. I’m not certain of those facts. What I know is there is one cemetery that consistently silences me by its presence each time I drive near. The grass is well-manicured at a slightly lighter shade of forest green and each tombstone stands identical in its ivory lane. At the Veterans Memorial Cemetery, twenty-four-seven, and 365 days a year, the grave formations bear witness to the military phrase dress it right and cover down. In silence they stand reckoning those lives once lived under a code, a precept, an ethic common to each man or woman who has promised to defend our nation against enemies both foreign and domestic.
I was once a soldier. I know that code. I honor the American flag. I pledged my life in the preservation of freedom once upon a time. I admire the living and respect the dead, now and always. I have buried both of my parents and today, although I will not be there as a physical witness, I will bury a friend. My friend was not a soldier, but he was a hero. He did not risk his life in defense of our nation, but in the face of imminent danger he evacuated his wife and two daughters during Hurricane Katrina’s path of destruction and elected to stay behind with his boat to assist those in need. He was the kind of guy who would help a stranger and go the extra mile for a friend. He was as we say in New Orleans “good people.” His passing has given me pause – made me examine my own life, consider those most important to me, and question my daily commitment to healthier choices in diet and exercise. We won’t live forever, you know? We get one shot at this thing called life and we have to make it count. We have to try. I woke up this morning and thought, “If I knew today was my last day, what would I say? How would I behave? Who would I befriend? Speak less harshly to? Forgive? How would I cope?” The beauty in death is that typically no one knows. Neither I – writing, nor you – reading, know the time or place or the hour of our death. I happen to think it is better that way. I, for one, would be overwhelmed with emotion and likely overtaken with grief. If the lack of time to plan didn’t kill me, surely the list of things-to-do would! Oddly and very optimistically, I believe the focus of life should actually be living vs. prepping for death. Death is inevitable. We none get out of this life alive. And while the details of death can become burdensome for those who are charged with the emotional and physical task of burial decisions, there remains a certain closure to be had when the final goodbyes have been said.
Maybe that’s what really bothers me about the lack of funeral processions in L.A. – so many hellos and not nearly as many goodbyes. I’m sure it’s my own mortality at question once again. If no one sees the hearse, the headlights, or the long trail of limousines, who will remember my passing? Who will mourn my death and celebrate my life? Who will give pause? In the City of Angels are my only chances of being remembered relegated to the insistence of my burial in a military grave? Where some poor sap (insert flashback of me from paragraph 1) sporadically drives past and recognizes my collective worth in service to my country? The real question is, “When that day comes will I even care?” I believe the answer is no. Why you may ask? It’s simple. Life is for the living. When I have given my last breath in this body I will cease to care for the things of this world. I only pray that those in charge of my burial have the decency to respect my wishes. I hope that I am smart enough to leave instructions. If I am not, maybe I am lucky that someone is operating with common sense and a small amount of knowledge in the way “she would have wanted it.” At the very least, if anyone is listening now, please fly two Saints flags on either side of my grave and enjoy the pun of me being both a dedicated sports fanatic and a Christian. After all, you see a lot of everything in L.A. Maybe someone will see those flags flying in the wind, stop and wonder who I was, how I lived. Maybe someone will miss me and mourn my death. More importantly, maybe someone will smile and celebrate my life. Until then and in the meantime, we must make each day count. At the very least, we must remember those heroes, like my friend, who have come before us and we must try.
Persnickety Self Adjustment: Every moment spent thinking about dying is a moment wasted that we could be living.