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Shopping for a niche? Never did that before.

Something about finding a funerary niche provides healing for an age-old wound

There are times, as you look after a teetering family member for worrisome year after year, you wonder how you can ever face the “ future inescapable reality” and still come out the other side.

It turns out there’s hope in a funerary niche.

I never thought about losing a parent, and for over fifty years, the same voices would answer on the other end of the phone—the same little protests of “Don’t drive in the snow,” “Don’t drive in the rain,” “We’ll be fine, don’t worry.” My parents stayed healthy and strong, from their globe-trotting 70s to the roaring 80s to the slow-walking 90s.

We lost my mother five years ago, and my father died last fall at the age of 102. Something clicked in his brain that simply turned off his appetite at this advanced age, and he refused a doctor since we all knew that medicine had nothing to offer at this point in life.

When my mother died, my father had opposed all funeral arrangements, and my brothers and I could not argue with him. He didn’t want anything religious, formal or expensive. But now that he was gone, I needed a place where our family could pause to remember. We wanted a place, however secular, where we could each feel close to whatever spirit we felt was still listening. And I really did not want my parents to rest under the piano in my living room forever.

So I went shopping for niches. Who knew that seeking out a 9”x11” piece of real estate could have a healing effect? Who knew, after we delayed for months after his death (so that the grandchildren could be in town), that this small action could turn an empty sadness into wholeness?

I looked up cemeteries, compared reviews, asked for price lists, considered locations, took virtual tours and finally met with a salesperson on a Wednesday afternoon. This very kind lady in very high heels took me for a drive up hill and down vale, through the beautiful lawns studded with stones, benches and luxurious mansions for the beloved in the dust. One hillside was for those who were superstitious about the wind. Another was for famous musicians, while another was notable for its view of the river through the trees. She offered me a specialized place for scattering, while cautioning that public parks prohibited such activity with several thousand dollars in fines.

I could not sleep well the whole week before our date, anticipating what? I could not tell. I had never laid a parent to rest before. The kindly stiletto heels had gently walked me through each intricate step of the necessary process: the agreement to purchase the very tiny 9 x 11 inch room, the advance payment for perpetual upkeep, the special order for the raised brass names(which had to be in a certain type of computer graphics file, for which I am eternally grateful for my millennial niece who understands such things), the permission to inurn (a vocabulary word for me), and finally a chapel reservation so our family could meet before the inurnment.

Groundskeepers drove their truck ahead of us through the snow to a garden of gray boulders beside a small stream bed. We laid small sprays of flowers on the top of the bridge as each of us walked closer to see the tiny room that my parents would share. Soft snow lightly dusted our heads as, finally, we photographed this place, these people, and our farewell to these small boxes of ash.

The next day, when I returned to the office and shared a picture of the wooden urns in their niche, a couple of my work friends shared sunny memories of family picnics at the cemetery, with children playing by grandparents who seemed at once quite near and infinitely far away. That confirmed my hope for the future of this niche.

One late night my internal muse insisted that I stop trying to sleep and instead write a small poem.

“No one dissenting.”

How many bricks are formally laid

To build a life to last an informal day

No more no less than the present one

Is all we are granted in each gift of dawn

We stand distinct from the essence

Of our world, standing up to be our selves

But finite we are when we dream alone

Our families bloom like chanterelles

Beautiful briefly– delicate softly

We rise but are inseparable from

The loam where we are and one day will be

Again a unity, nemine dissentiente.

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