How To Be Buried On Martha's Vineyard

Do you have your final resting place picked out?


Sometimes you just know when a story is crying out to be written. I'm willing to bet that anyone who has ever set all 10 toes on this Island, strolling along any one of our astonishing harbors, then planting a face into two scoops of Ben & Bill's ice cream, this is a person who has turned to his or her companion, and mused out loud, "Wouldn't it be lovely to be buried here?" (I know, I know; most guys don't say 'wouldn't it be lovely?', they just grunt and point with their ice cream cones, and their partners get their drift, should they be remotely interested.)

Thing is, when someone speaks of the "loveliness" of being buried somewhere, they don't mean, like, now. But a final resting ground, in a setting dear to our hearts, is a romantic notion. Not as romantic, certainly, as being married in a given place, although a lot of people getting divorced might entertain all manner of fantasies about burying the ex, well, anywhere.

And who among us who has lived on this island for any length of time hasn't expressed a variety of fancies: "I love that cemetery up on Tower Hill, along the old captains' walk, ya know?" or "Isn't that just the prettiest little graveyard, up where Beluschi's buried?"

Marty and I, in long-ago walks along West Chop, used to admire a tiny cemetery where people mostly named Claghorn had been laid to rest, although we noted a certain OCD running through the family: Each tombstone denoted birth and death dates up to the last second practically, as in "Lived 87 years, 3 months and 14 days." We turned Claghorn into a verb as in, "Stop claghorning the potatoes -- they'll be ready when they're ready."

So how does one get buried on this island, when the time comes? And where? 

I first pondered this question as I flipped recently through a favorite websites, Our French Neighborhood. I came upon an article, How To Be Buried in Pere Lachaise. For anyone who has never known the unadulterated joy of walking among these gravestones both ancient and modern, this is the Rolls Royce of Parisian burial grounds. Nestled in rolling hills in a northeast section of the city, these manicured grounds hold monuments big enough in which to house a family of four, plus two pigs and a goat. Kings, queens, and ridiculously famous artists and writers, and at least one rock star, namely be-still-my-heart Jim Morrison, all of them, and thousands more besides, R.I.P. in this hallowed ground. 

But here's the thing: You need to have been a king or queen or Voltaire or Heloise & Abelard or Jim Morrison to REMAIN in Pere Lachaise. In the City of Lights, soil is scarce. Any old schmo whose 30-year lease is up will get summarily excavated and transferred to Aux Morts Ossuary. As chic as that sounds, the Ossuary is a dumping ground for a whole mix of human relics which, if pieced back together, would add up to over one million anatomy lessons.

And even with all this slap-dash exhumation going on, as if shovels have been placed in the hands of a squadron of Bugs Bunnies, there's a waiting list to be interred in Pere Lachaise. It would still help to be a king or queen or rock star; a little bit like getting a table at Atria in August. So, don't do it. Not Atria; do that; don't worry; you will eat; don't think about being buried in Pere Lachaise. I'm sorry to break this to you, but you probably won't make the, er, cut.

So what are the ins and outs (I'm sorry, I'm not trying to make puns, truly!) of being buried here on The Vineyard? The guy with his face planted in two scoops of Ben & Bill's ice cream stands no chance, not unless he buys an island house, designates it as his primary crib, registers to vote here, and has tried at least once to wriggle out of jury duty. And even with that, there will be no further shilly-shallying about those bucholic hillside graves above the weeping willow near the brook a ways down from the lighthouse. ... If one wishes to follow one's fondest dream to be planted on this island, one must look around one's own town for a sweet spot of a cemetery.

So how, you might ask, did Tisbury resident Lillian Hellman find her way to a splendid piece of property on Abel's Hill (the Beluschi place), and how did Art Buchwald, Bill Styron and Mike Wallace shoehorn themselves into the CLOSED FOR BUSINESS plot of the time-obsessed Claghorns, all of whom were undoubtedly buried with their watches still ticking? Well, need you ask? Think back to Jim Morrison: Would a shoe salesman from Buffalo who died of a drug overdose in a bathtub in a Parisian hotel have ended up buried in Pere Lachaise? It's doubtful, is it not? Even in the undertaking business, money (and fame) talks, balcony walks, or at least gets shipped and pall-beared to a less glitzy location.

But have no fear. All of our island towns boast "lovely" (or for men, grunt-worthy) cemeteries, and all but the most circumscribed of the oldest burial grounds built into burgeoning neighborhoods still possess an open field or two. If you like edgy, may I suggest some of our mangier graveyards such as the Sailor's Burying Ground in Vineyard Haven – all with numbered plots; someone, somewhere has a list – or the garden of remembrance at the head of Tashmoo simply referred to as Near The Pumping Station, as in "He's buried in Near The Pumping Station."

There's also a cute spot called the Mingo Cemetery, described in various history books as a cluster of graves "in a poison ivy thicket 1/4 mile up from the Christiantown Cemetery."

By the way, for those many Americans in favor of cremation (some studies put it as high as 40%; it's 72% in the U.K. and 98% in Japan; no Pere Lachaise shovelers need apply for jobs there!), when it comes to imparting your remains to a favorite destination, choose away! Yes, there are laws against tossing remains without a permit, but when was the last time you heard about a police raid on a seaside memorial service?

I'm thinking I'd like my ashes scattered at Pere Lachaise -- that'll show those elitist Parisians, but failing that, here, there, and everywhere on this magnifico island would do my heart good – were it still beating. Oh, and save a handful for the roundabout, right in the center where those divine flower beds are going!

And you? What's your favorite set of Island coordinates for this very special time in your life? Be sure to leave a comment below. ...

Chip Coblyn December 17, 2012 at 01:12 PM
(From Edgartown) the mosquito cut reaching westward into Sengie just before the turn at Bend In the Road Beach; scatter me there. As unromantic as mosquito cut sounds, that's one gorgeous spot.
deborah forest hart December 17, 2012 at 03:21 PM
I trust you will not be leaving us any time soon. I know you oppose the roundabout, as in "over my dead body," but it appears construction is imminent. . . But if it is to be, perhaps an ashen fertilizing legacy would be a good thing for those flower beds. In fact, it may be, that should the roundabout come to pass, I will be unable to pass that way, those beds again, without thinking of you. And that is some roundabout memorial.
Holly Nadler December 17, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Deb, I'm touched! But I think I hear the East Chop Lighthouse calling to me!
deborah forest hart December 18, 2012 at 01:32 AM
Well, the air quality is bound to be better at the East Chop Lighthouse, and we often walk up there, sit on the benches, looking out to sea a bit, then walk back. That works for me, as well. So many fine Vineyard spots to considering scattering. . .
Cynthia Mascott December 18, 2012 at 02:18 AM
I remember when Dad was on a walking tour of Paris and they were trying to get into that famous cemetery and they couldn't find the entrance and someone said "How do you get in there?" and dad said in his morbid voice "You die".
Holly Nadler December 18, 2012 at 01:48 PM
It's an old joke you can use w/ any cemetery, but here goes: Q: How many people are buried in Pere Lachaise? A: A: All of them.
Holly Nadler December 18, 2012 at 01:52 PM
btw, a town administrator from WT emailed me that no residency of any sort is required. I heard differently from many sources, including our own "death care business" guys from Chapman, Gleason & Cole, but each town has its own policies. I imagine with cremation being the big thing these days, we need not worry about our quaint little burial grounds being filled up too quickly. If they are, however, we'll need to call in the shovel guys from Pere Lachaise! Aux Morts Ossuary, anyone?
Sue Cimmino December 19, 2012 at 02:54 PM
My Father purchased a 4 plot space in Sacred Heart Cemetery for he my Mother, my bother and I, when unfortunately in the Summer of 1956 my Mother who loved her Vineyard died unexpectedly in our Summer Home. She had remarked on the trip up from New York that if anything ever happened this was where she wated to be burried. All the plots are filled except mine, and as much as I love the Island, I don't plan on occupying the space anytime soon. i do enjoy telling people here in Florida, that I own property on the Vineyard and just haven't done anything with it yet. I am one of those foldks who has Advanced Directives done, obituary done just fill int he dates, and my video for my service I add to when I find wonderful pictures. Don't want any bad ones at all! Hmmm I wonder if I can get a copy of my drivers license photo done on Monday. That one was great!
Holly Nadler December 19, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Sue, I'm always impressed with people like you who plan ahead of time. It saves your loved ones from having to make all those decisions when they've just received the big knock-out punch. Everyone in my family has trouble planning what to have for lunch, so we're pretty much hopeless in serious situations.
Michael West December 19, 2012 at 05:25 PM
Hey, what's it cost to get buried around here?
Holly Nadler December 19, 2012 at 05:56 PM
The sky's the limit, Michael! But you seem like the type for a good Viking funeral, with friends in a nearby boat playing ukeleles?


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