BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Just when I thought the year couldn't get any worse, along came the Menorah Gardens cemetery scandal.
I came across the story Friday, tucked away in the back of my localpaper. The headline read: "Photos, Video Show Vaults' Bodies Discarded in Woods."
Even though I live in Vermont, I like a sensational story as well as the next person. So I took the time to read about a Ft. Lauderdale cemetery that was caught putting bodies in the wrong graves, putting two or three bodies on top of each other in vaults, destroying vaults, and even digging up bodies and dumping them in the woods.
The cemetery, Menorah Gardens, is owned by Service Corporation International of Houston, the world's largest cemetery and funeral home chain. Notice that there's not even a hint of the company's business in its generic name. But something about the name Menorah Gardens sounded familiar, so I checked it out with my mother, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale. Sure enough, Menorah Gardens is where my father and my mother's mother are buried.
In life, Dad and Grandma royally disliked each other, staging a 50-year tug-of-war over my mother's affections. In death, they are kept apart by only one grave. My mother owns the plot between them.
Now I'm wondering if maybe they aren't as separated as I thought they were. It would be the height of irony if their bodies had been dumped together in one grave during this national chain's rush to a larger profit margin.
I never had a good feeling about that cemetery. After my dad's funeral, we mourners were rushed to the limos while the coffin was still above the ground. My brother Bernie and I refused to go. We were both thinking that as soon as we left, they could tumble Dad out, throw some dirt on him, and resell the coffin to someone else.
My mother was crying and begging us not to make a scene. Her friends were looking at us as though we were monsters. But we stood our ground, so to speak, until the work crew was called over. Glowering at us, they pulled the grass cloth away from the grave, lowered Dad into the ground, and back-hoed a small mountain of dirt on top of him. We leftthinking he was safe.
I'm horrified at the desecration of these graves, and at the lack of the company's respect for the dead, as well as for the living. But this is not only a spiritual issue for me. Seeing my dad in his coffin made me realize that dead bodies are basically only by-products. Totems, if you will. What I saw in that box was certainly not my father, just something that resembled him. The thing that made Dad Dad was his spirit, his personality and his sense of humor, and those had flown the coop. The same lesson was reinforced even more strongly the next year, when we cremated Bernie.
So my anger comes as much from the fact that SCI broke a contractand cynically exploited people at their most vulnerable. If there's a classaction law suit - and there will be - I want to be a part of it.
This is not the column I started out to write as my last one ofthe year 2001. In fact, you could title it "Columnus Interruptus." Usually I use this time to sum up my impressions - good and bad - of the last 12 months. But Sept. 11 and its aftermath has left me close to being clinically depressed, and my writing has reflected my despair.
Because I didn't want this column to be a laundry list of the world's ills, a few weeks ago I started searching for the antidote to depression, which is hope. I was off to a good start when New York's Mayor Rudolph Guiliani said, right after Sept. 11, "We met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity." That was not only hopeful, but true.
Then I received an e-mail from a new group called 9-11 Peace (9-11peace.org). They said that no matter how bad things might seem, there are always reasons to hope. "At one time it seemed that slavery had always been a part ofhuman history and always would be," the e-mail said. "But through the courage, sacrifice, and hard work of thousands of people, slavery was abolished in most countries. Apartheid ended. The Berlin wall came down. Women were enfranchised in many nations."
The e-mail listed several hopeful signs for today. One was the disarmament in Ireland and that country's growing peace and prosperity. Another was Yugoslavia's establishment of a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, aimed at healing the wounds at the roots of the conflicts there. Another was that women are represented in the newly formed Afghanistan government, and there is a growing world-wide recognition of the importance of women in peacekeeping.
Another was the Manifesto 2000 Signature Campaign, launched by UNESCO and several Nobel Peace Laureates, where signers commit to following a specific set of principals in their daily life. They promise to: respect all life; reject violence; share with others; listen to understand; preserve the planet; rediscover solidarity. The good news is that the manifesto has been signed by 75 million people worldwide, with more people signing every day. Still searching, I found life-affirming in music, too. For example, the new, three-disc compilation, "The Legendary Sun Records Story," is the Rosetta Stone of Rock 'n' Roll.
It has 60 original songs by the originalrecording artists. Everyone but Elvis is on it - Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and a bunch of one-hit wonders. You have to smile, and you'll probably dance, when you play it.
And this has been a breakout year for dear Fred Eaglesmith, whowrites songs that can break your heart, and plays them with the speed ofbluegrass. I've managed to see him in concert eight times this year withoutonce getting bored.
So there I was, riding on the hope train, picking up speed, well onmy way to a New Year's column full of hope and maybe even cheer. Then onFriday I read the Menorah Gardens story.
Usually at this time of year we wish each other "Happy New Year"with an emphasis on "Happy." This year, all I can do is wish you a happy NEW year, because this past one has been foul. Big time.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics, economics and travel.