In a case of art imitating life, Jennifer Longo’s debut Six Feet Over It draws inspiration from the author’s own formative years. Protagonist Leigh works in her family’s graveyard: selling plots, consoling grieving strangers, and mourning the sudden loss of her own best friend. Turns out, Longo’s life wasn’t all that different. Here, she shares her experiences and offers up seven key things she learned about mourning while working the graveyard shift.
Lessons from growing up in a graveyard (or: it’s really not that bad, honest!):
The summer I was 10 years old, three things happened in quick succession: My teenaged cousin died, so I attended my first wake; my friend and fifth grade classmate died; and then my dad bought our town graveyard. Till then, I hadn’t thought much about death. Now it was all I thought about. All the time. My sisters and I worked in “The Park,” as our dad called it. We pulled weeds, planted flower bulbs, and picked up rocks to spare the lawn mower blades. We made friends with the gravedigger and watched people bury loved ones and mourn. When I was older, I sold plots for a minute. While I ultimately never came to any new conclusions about death, I did gradually become aware of some key facts about mourning:
1. Telling a person in mourning that they are doing it wrong (too much, not enough, for too long, don’t take it out on people, don’t keep it in) is just stupid. Mourning is not something most people practice and get really good at—it always sucks. If a person wants to heap a grave with knick-knacks and helium balloons and greeting cards and have picnic lunches on the headstone, don’t make fun of them. Knock that off.
2. Don’t bogart mourning for attention. This may seem counterintuitive to rule #1, but I’m saying if it’s your mail carrier who died and you go up to the mail carrier’s widow and children wanting sympathy for your pain because you need validation and you always did love the way the guy used to put your packages under the eaves so they wouldn’t get wet… That is jacked. It’s not a contest. Knock that off.
3. Nothing bad will ever come from being nice to someone in pain. Take a minute. The only bad or awkward thing you can do to a person in mourning is ignore them. Try something. If it’s not what they need or want, they’ll tell you. Don’t leave them lonely because of your own hang-ups or fear of doing it wrong. Knock that off.
4. Like its ceremonial cousin the wedding, a bigger and more expensive funeral does not mean that someone is more missed, more loved, or more mourned than the person whose life is celebrated with less fanfare. Do what you’ve got to do. Sure, it’s often a cultural, familial or financial thing, but trust me, spending a million dollars for flowers and stretch limos isn’t likely to make anyone feel any better—or maybe it will, who the hell knows (see rule #1). The point is that it isn’t necessary. Don’t put yourself in the poorhouse just to keep up appearances. No one cares. Especially, I’m assuming, not the deceased. And if they do then let them feel free to pull out their checkbooks. That’s what Pre-Need is for.
5. Children mourn. Don’t cram your adult perceptions of ‘resiliency’ down their spines—see rules 1-4.
6. Death is a mystery. It is dealt with, celebrated, and thought of differently by every culture, every religion, every person. It is super lame to lecture someone in mourning about your god, your religious text, your ghost story, your conviction that it was “someone’s time.” Again, this may seem incongruous with rule #4, but what I mean is, be kind for them, not for you. Does that make sense? Let this be your mantra when attempting to comfort a person in mourning: Not About Me, Not About Me, Not About Me. Follow that rule and you’ll generally do okay. Just express your sympathy, let them know you’re available and understand you’ll screw up, maybe you’ll accidentally make someone feel worse, someone might make you feel worse—and that’s just another reason mourning is so rough. Feels like the first time every time. Give yourself a break. Give the mourners a break. Bring a casserole and a macaroni salad and put it in the fridge—and use a disposable bowl with a lid please, because you know no one, in the midst of being heartbroken and planning a funeral, wants to deal with returning a crap ton of random people’s Tupperware containers. Just do your best to not do nothing.
7. Time may dull the edges, but it does not heal all wounds. We’ve got to be patient. Give people a break.
Maybe I do recall something about death that I used to think about while sitting in the dingy graveyard office, watching the ducks float around in the pond. I think maybe for a lot of people—for me, anyway—it’s not so much death itself that sends people into a tailspin, maybe it’s the way it happens. And the missing, of course. Never being with the dead person anymore in this life, that’s super ‘No duh.’ But I did see a marked difference in the people who bought graves for old people who drifted peacefully into rest, versus a parent buying an At Need grave for a child or adult who had suffered horribly before going.
“To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
I think I do believe that. But for those of us left alone on the shore while our beloved’s ship sails west to the undying lands, mourning can be less of an adventure and more of a dark, frightening swamp to wade through. If growing up in a graveyard has taught me anything, the one thing that might make the swamp journey a little easier bear is a hand to hold.
Jennifer Longo holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Theater from Humboldt State University. She credits her lifelong flair for drama to parents who did things like buy the town graveyard and put their kids to work in it-because how hilarious would that be? Turns out, pretty hilarious. Jennifer lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and daughter and writes about writing at taotejen.com.