From my memoir
THE YOUNG WIDOW’S BOOK OF HOME IMPROVEMENT (UQP, 2008)
After six months there were still no words chiselled into the headstone that marked John’s grave. Trying to find the words for something for which there were none had proven too difficult. As a former book editor, my skill had always been in revising other people’s words, not coming up with my own. For me, John’s gravestone was proving to be the ultimate blank slate.
In the days after John’s death the Necropolis at Rookwood Cemetery had sent me a bundle of paperwork including a certificate with my name on it. I wondered if it was an encouragement award for breathing, for staying upright. Before I saw its title I could tell by its thick embossed paper and creamy colour that this was no ordinary piece of correspondence.
The document was a formal certification of my ‘right of burial’ with John in Plot 943. I couldn’t help but chuckle. I didn’t know which was more amusing – the knowledge that I had my very own plot of ground to be buried in, or that the document specified that, when the time came, I would be lowered into the ground on top of my husband. There mustn’t be enough room any more for side-by-side burials. Land is too valuable to be wasted on the dead, especially in a booming real-estate market. All I could hear was John’s voice saying, ‘Well if you’re going to be lying on top of me, make sure you’re facing down.’
I now had a title deed I never expected. Alive or dead, I would never be homeless. It would be important to hold on to this document. I would have to keep it in a safe place until the time someone else needed to present it on my behalf. But I had a feeling that I would be a picture of rude health for long years to come.
Since the funeral I had carried with me a small notebook in which I tried variations on my morbid theme. I scribbled all the permutations of phrases I could think of, until I had a requiem’s worth of words. I drew the outline of the gravestone and tried arranging words inside it, to better judge what they might look like once chiselled into place. My notebook is full of cemetery scribble and sketches of headstones.
Here are some of the phrases I jotted in my notebook:
A wonderful man
Beloved husband of Virginia
Adored beloved husband
Loved and respected
Loved by all
Loved by all who knew him
Deeply loved, respected and missed
I miss you every day
You will be missed always
Missed by all who knew him
Admired and sadly missed always
Admired and sadly missed by all who knew him
A life of love and laughter cut sadly short
One theme and a hundred empty variations. Missed. Sadly missed. Greatly missed. Always missed. There were times I wished that John had chosen cremation.
The editorial queries ran through my mind. I wondered whether it was overly self-referential to name myself on the stone. If I needed to name John’s parents – both long deceased – individually, or at all. If it was important to name London and Sydney as the cities where John was born and where he died; or just the years.
I also had the word limit to contend with. Another document in my correspondence from Rookwood Cemetery stated that eighty letters were included in the price of the burial plot. (I couldn’t help but think of all those advertisements on daytime television: ‘But wait! You also get a free set of steak knives …’) To exceed eighty letters would cost me sixty cents per letter. But was ‘the’ or ‘a’ counted in the first eighty letters? Did the space between words count as one letter? Was a hyphen treated as a letter? What about numerals, for the years of birth and death? I imagined some shadowy figure at the Necropolis solemnly counting the letters on draft texts submitted by the Bereaved.
Wandering around John’s new neighbours one day for inspiration, I was astonished to discover that even in a cemetery the words have a house style. They all begin in the same vein – loving wife, devoted father, beloved brother, sister, son-in-law. Like Noah’s Ark, the words went on to the stones two by two. The adjectives felt forced, as if the writer was trying to convince the reader that their subject was worthy of a stranger’s pause. Each person sounded the same as the next. But John was not the same as his neighbours. His stone had to say something different.
My metaphorical blue pencil was never far away. I spied the description ‘Special Angel’ on one headstone. That’s quite a claim, I thought, but does Angel really need to be capitalised? Another announced that Jose was now ‘Among the angels … at peace, at rest. In Gods’ care.’ I flinched: the apostrophe was in the wrong spot. Poor Jose. His Catholic family had announced that he was now in the care of multiple gods, rather than the one god he was purported to believe in. What Jose needed was the loving care of a proofreader. Renewing my faith in apostrophes gave me strength.
Until then I hadn’t considered the possibility of a spelling mistake, or a grammatical error. Suddenly I realised how easy it was to do: one missing letter and I could bequeath John a trusted fiend or a loving bother. I wondered if I should offer my services to the Necropolis.
Spotting others’ errors was much easier than coming up with words of my own. In editing books or writing reports, words were revised, rearranged, deleted. But for this editorial job, the stonemason’s chisel was mightier than my pencil. I would see the same words, in the same order, every time I visited John’s grave.
‘Just write something,’ I heard him say in my head. ‘It’s not me. It’s not us. I don’t care what you put on it, just get the details down and be done with it.’
John was right. No one else would pay the inscription as much attention as I. What I had been agonising over, ostensibly on John’s behalf, was for my own benefit. How was it possible to summarise the life of the handsome forty-seven-year-old I had married? Especially in eighty letters. My attempt would stare back at me for the term of my natural life. I should have written it this way instead. It would be better if I had left that out. What sort of wife was I if I couldn’t come up with words for John’s headstone? I never thought I would be a wife. Yet here I was, suddenly a widow. An editor without a text.
Eventually I sent some words off to the Necropolis on the form they had enclosed months earlier with my Right of Burial certificate. They would never be perfect, I decided, but they would have to do. I asked for, and received, a proof before the stonemason went to work with his chisel, so I could check it one last time.
By the time I signed the proof and faxed confirmation back to the Necropolis, John had been dead and buried eight months, and I had trudged through a lot of paperwork regarding his estate. Banks, insurance companies, financial institutions – they all required copies of his birth certificate and death certificate. The years tolled like bells in my head.
I didn’t notice the error until I had visited John’s grave, complete with inscribed stone, a couple more times. Something about the year 1957 didn’t seem right. I looked at the inscription again. A knot of anguish formed in my stomach and slowly tightened. At the same time I hoped desperately to be wrong, I saw that I had given John the incorrect birth year. I had confused the fact that he was forty-seven when he died, with the 1956 that was his actual birth year. Or it could have been because I knew he had fought cancer for seven years. I had insisted on a proof from the cemetery to avoid the stonemason making a mistake. It never occurred to me that I might make one myself. Everyone agreed that John had died too young. In my unconscious editorial wisdom I had made him one year younger, bestowing an extra year of life we could never share. My blue pencil could change anything, it seemed, except the truth.
Virginia Lloyd is a copywriter, developmental/structural editor, author mentor and occasional literary agent: www.virginialloyd.com This is an excerpt from her book, THE YOUNG WIDOW’S BOOK OF HOME IMPROVEMENT (UQP, 2008)