A series of small failures

one from the archives — those pesky burial plots

When I got home this morning, after two blissful days in Sugar House with Tyler, my mom had lots to say. This was the most memorable part: Standing on the stairs, about halfway down, she asked if I still wanted that burial plot.

The burial plot conversation started in around 2000 when I was living in New York City. So here’s an old essay from the past on the topic:

“Your dad and I are thinking of selling some burial plots.”

It had started as an ordinary phone conversation: I was at my desk in my tiny West Village apartment, sipping from my glass of vodka and tonic, hoping my mother in Utah wouldn’t hear the clink of ice cubes each time I raised the glass. On the other side of the line, mom was talking about death and illness and misfortune happening to people I used to know. Once we had the misery update, talk usually turned to what my parents were having for dinner. But today, the conversation had veered into an unforeseen direction. She continued:

“Well, you know when your grandmother died, we also bought plots for your dad and me. We didn’t want her to be alone there.” ‘There’ was Green Hills, a mortuary on the outskirts of San Pedro, the blue-collar port town outside of Los Angeles, where I grew up, and where my parents had lived practically all their lives until they, like many faithful Mormons, moved to Utah. “We bought plots for your uncles, too, but your uncle Ted says he wants to be buried in Utah, with his own family, in the mountains.” It went without saying that she wasn’t selling the plot for my Uncle Milton. My mother’s twin, Milton sits in a halfway house somewhere in Utah and smokes and watches television all day. He used to be quite the athlete. Now he’s the archetypal example of what can happen to you if you don’t say no to drugs. That was a plot they’d be keeping.

Then she drops the bombshell. “So we have a plot for you,” she continues. “We’re just not sure if you’d want it.”

I don’t like being in the misfit camp with Milton. And I don’t really want to think about these morbid details.

“Last I checked, mom, I still had a pulse. Jesus.”

“I know, I always hated when your grandmother would talk to me about her will, or who would get what,” mom says. “But it’s going to happen to all of us. We’re all going to die.”

She can’t help it — Mormons are prepared for everything. In case of war, famine, or armageddon, she has a year’s supply of food in a special cold storage room in the basement. Row upon row of white plastic buckets full of wheat, dehydrated milk, fruits and vegetables, dried beans, pasta, and other wholesome staples. Enormous blue plastic barrels of water so large that unleashed on the dried food locker, the re-hydration process might blow up the house. She even has a wheat grinder to make her own flour. Plus those burial plots. I’m still trying to figure out what happens between now and when my body stiffens, but she’s already on to how to dispose of it.

“I always thought I’d just be cremated,” I tell my mother, hoping to get back to manageable talk. “So what are you having for dessert?” I tentatively ask.

But she won’t be deflected. “Honey, it’s easier to put you back together in the resurrection if you don’t get cremated,” she says.

When we talk about religion, I feel wise and almost parental; she sounds like a three-year old. When I was growing up, I idolized my mother. Besides being beautiful, she seemed the repository of all knowledge, which she imparted to me: she taught me everything, from how to drink from a cup, eat with a fork, put on my clothes, speak, and read. So when she converted to Mormonism when I was seven and she introduced me to Joseph Smith and the golden plates and the stories of angels and devils and salvation and damnation, what reason did I have to doubt any of it?

My mother seems like a reasonable person, but she adopts the same tone when she’s talking about resurrection that she uses to discuss salad dressing, and she matter-of-factly believes that Jesus is returning to the earth any day now.

“Do you want us to keep the plot?” she asks again. “That way you’d be right next to us. And on the morning of the first resurrection, we’ll stand up and I’ll wave hello,” she says, all sunshine. “And I’ll say, ‘see, it all really is true.'”

Mormons believe that when Jesus comes, the faithful — they, of course — will spring up first. Then, families that have been sealed together for time and all eternity — again, only Mormons — will be reunited. And then Jesus will begin his reign over 1000 years of peace on the Earth. But to be part of this holy crowd, I would need to come back to church.

This wouldn’t mean just going to church on Sunday. To be a faithful Mormon, I’d need to give the church 10 percent of everything I earn (before taxes). I’d have to spend every waking moment reading the scriptures and attending endless meetings and spreading the gospel to the unfortunate people of the earth who don’t yet have the truth. I’d be expected to trace my family tree so that my dead ancestors could be baptized Mormon and accept or reject the church in the hereafter. I’d have to treat my body like a temple, which would mean I’d have to stop polluting my body with coffee and tea and alcohol and drugs. I’d have to swear off sex, heavy petting and even french kissing, because God knows where that leads. I’d have to believe my past relationships with women were sinful, not allow myself to be attracted to other women, and support the church’s political campaigns against gay marriage. Somehow I’d have to find an honorable priesthood holder (meaning a man) who would take me to the temple and marry me. And I’d have to not be bothered by what goes on in the temple, where I’d be washed and anointed and given the odd long underwear I’d have to wear for the rest of my life. I’d have to not be offended by the fact that the secret name I was given in the temple could only be uttered to my husband, so that when I die, he could usher me into the hereafter. (My name was Charlotte.) It probably also shouldn’t bother me that without him, I couldn’t be saved. I’d have to believe that in heaven, God would again ask his faithful to practice polygamy. (The prophet conveniently suspended the law on earth for now, because people just didn’t get it, and besides, the territory of Utah wanted to become a state.) I’d have to believe that the fragile old man leading the church is a prophet of God, and I’d have to take his word as scripture. When he says women shouldn’t work outside the home, I’d have to agree. I’d have to say things like “I know the church is true,” “I know Gordon B. Hinckley is a true prophet,” and “I know the book of Mormon is true,” and mean it. I’d have to stop thinking independently.

In other words, I would have to be a different person.

“What’s wrong honey? Is this hard for you to hear?” Mom asks, slightly less brightly.
My mother can’t understand what happened. I used to be a believing Mormon. I went to church faithfully. I even went on a mission to Uruguay and converted 34 people. But the dogma that once seemed magical and that gave me what I thought was special insight into the mysteries of the universe now sounds like so many fairy tales. Just thinking about the years I lost being brainwashed to the point that I too sounded like a small child when I talked fills me with rage. My mom and my brothers and I have agreed not to talk about the church anymore, but she has sneakily slipped us into a conversation. This is not about burial plots. It’s about inclusion in the family — am I in for eternity or not? Or am I going to be rotting away in the ground while they, clothed in white, skip off to some eternal bliss, a happy, loving family forever?

Even 15 years after I left, I still wonder sometimes: What if they’re right? And I miss the simplicity, the confidence, the harmony of knowing my place in the great eternal plan. “Sure, Mom, I’ll take the plot,” I say. I don’t have any better options. What does it matter. I’ll be dead. I think.

Update: today, I told her I wanted to be cremated. Progress!!! and she is trying to sell the burial plots. She may want to be cremated too. I told her what I’d really like is to be thrown into a ditch and covered with dirt, sans embalming chemicals. (They’re so bad for the environment.) The idea of worms eating me and turning me back into the dirt from whence I came is so romantic. But it’s illegal, we agreed. So, cremation it is.