Death, Love, And Imperfection.

I am no fan of perfection. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having standards, but when you define your standard as “perfection,” I think you run into trouble. One problem with “perfection” is that this concept is often presented as an attainable condition. It puts the idea into our little monkey brains that at some discernable point in the future, with a lot of effort, our lives will no longer be messy and confusing.

Take gravestones, for example. This week was the anniversary of the death of my grandfather. I marked the event with a walk through Westport Cemetery. My grandfather doesn’t have a gravestone. When he died, his ashes were scattered over a pond just south of the Hershey plant. So were his wife’s. So were his son’s. When I was younger, on the anniversary of his death, I would get profoundly sad because there was no gravestone to put flowers on. But as I walked through this cemetery, I changed my mind.

Cemeteries are the epitome of “perfection.” They are orderly. There are square family plots marked off from their neighbors, complete with cement curbs. Each family plot is divided into rectangles for graves. Each grave is marked with a standardized marker and contains a rectangular coffin. It’s a methodical grid of boxes within boxes, zones within zones - gated communities for the afterlife. Or cubicles of the damned. Either way.

Most of the plots at Westport are arranged around a married couple. Often, there is a monolith in the middle of the gravesite with a family name on it, flanked by two individual gravestones for the patriarch and matriarch, then perhaps some smaller markers for the progeny.

On many of the markers, time has worn away the names of individuals and has left behind only the familial role each had played in life: Husband. Wife. Son. Daughter.

Cemeteries are not for the dead; they are to comfort the living. Thus, I find this arrangement telling. People visiting here want to believe that Husband and Wife are there in the ground, resting together for eternity in a state of harmonious perfection.

As I was leaving the cemetery, a dapper raven landed nearby. It was because of him that I saw the hidden grave marker of two young "lovers" that I had overlooked before. Make of that what you will.

First, Master Raven was compelled to sing and dance for Alma, who had died in 1907 when she was 41.

Then, it was a melancholy little tune for the Jankowskis over by the fence.

When he was done with his ritual, he flew away, and I walked along the fence to go back to the car. That’s when I found this gravestone that I’d overlooked before.

When I saw the gravestone for the Native American remains, I wondered at the logic behind interring Native American bones side-by-side with the bones of the very people who displaced the Native Americans in the first place. I was particularly struck by the inscription on the gravestone. It reads, NATIVE AMERICAN REMAINS (MALE & FEMALE) Reburied on Jan. 31, 2004. By emphasizing that the remains are male and female, I couldn’t help but think that this was meant to mirror the picture-perfect Husband - Wife arrangement of the rest of the cemetery. Never mind that these two Native American individuals probably didn’t even know each other - the living felt that they deserved to rest here in harmonious perfection right alongside the everlasting remains of Husband and Wife.

Humans are imperfect. We lie and are often cowards. We cheat and hurt the ones we love. All the time. And we fail. Constantly. My grandfather was about as far from perfect as you can get. He was a hard drinker. He smoked a lot of cigarettes, too, and sometimes he wasn’t very nice to horses. He wasn’t a good father to his children even though he adored them, and I have reason to believe that he wasn’t always faithful to his wife even though he clearly loved her with devotion. Yet I loved this far-from-perfect human as much as it’s possible for one human being to love another. Because if you refuse to love any human who is imperfect, then you will never love. And if you expect love itself to be perfect, then you’re in for a huge disappointment. Love is a painful, chaotic, complicated thing. It is merciless. It comes in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, and it’s rarely predictable. It is fond of ambush, and there is no earthly way that Husband and Wife got out of it unscathed, regardless of how romantic their entombment might appear to those of us who remain behind.

I used to take comfort in the thought that when I died, my ashes could be scattered over the pond where my grandfather’s ashes were scattered. Today the pond has been cemented over, and an industrial complex has been built up in its place. You know, the sort of establishment where you can rent forklifts and storage units. Fortunately, in my maturity, I have come to realize that there might be better places on earth to scatter my meager remains than in the shadow of the old Hershey plant. And now, I’m very glad there isn’t a gravestone out there that implies that my grandfather was something other than what he was. I think the gravestone of Husband and Wife should read like this:

Here rests Husband and Wife.
She was a notorious flirt.
He had a gambling problem.
But they loved and were loved anyway.


  1. Poignant post.

    Good observations. Great photos. Interesting theme.

    You got it all. Thanks for sharing.

  2. As soon as the top of the first picture showed on my screen, I knew where it was taken. Every time we headed out to Fort Brag when I was a kid, we'd cross Wages Creek and my dad would intone sloooowly, "The wages of sin are death!" And he would time it so that the word death would be punctuated by the sight of the Westport Cemetary.

    The ocean was often cold and foggy. I sometimes got carsick. My dad would snap. But amidst the wrong was all that right of being together and loving each other and making memories. Even today, my kids and husband and I intone, "The wages of sin are death!" as we round that corner.

  3. Hello Dave and Kym!

    Dave, as you can no doubt tell, I was a bit pensive on the day of my cemetery walk, and I was a little worried that my post might be too melancholy. But then I figured, there's room on the internet for melancholy, too. I'm really glad you liked it, and I really appreciate your words of encouragement.

    Kym, your story was hilarious! Believe me, from here on out, every time I pass this cemetery, I'm going to be thinking of the "wages of sin.." I've had my share of car sick, twisty drives through the Sierras with my dad, too, and while he did his best, he would often lose it just because he wasn't used to dealing with a sick kid. I can remember stopping at the Knights Ferry store and him handing me a Slim Jim and a can of Squirt and saying, "Here, put something on your stomach. It'll make you feel better." Needless to say, a sugary drink and a stick of spicy, cured meat NEVER helped matters. But I laugh every time I think about it, which is the point. It doesn't have to be perfect. Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing your story!

  4. Dear Jendocino,
    I have come to your blog via Kym's mentioning you in one of her posts. This post caught me, too, from the first photo, thinking: must bookmark this site. That accomplished, I took the ride with you. How I used to daydream at the cemetaries (Ferndale and Rohnerville, and a few burial sites throughout s.humboldt), and you're right, I always thought that it was the ultimate "perfection!" of marriage to end up under the stone which has your "married" name on it! Oh Goddess! As a young adult, and now even older, I realize that the truth of it all, is perfection, but a very different sense of the concept. I love the idea of being one with the sunbaked redwood needles on some remote hillside.

    Well, thanks. That was goood.

  5. Hello Swallowtail! Yet again, I feel so lucky that Kym mentioned me. Thank you for the nice compliments. Your blog is fantastic as well! I'm adding you to my reading list, as well as to my links. I love your remote hillside idea in terms of a final resting place. It sounds so simple and beautiful to me... The freedom... The air... I think I've had one too many cubicles in my life! And I agree that perfection is where we find it. It is also fleeting, so you need to enjoy those "perfect" moments. Because in five minutes the cat will get sick or someone will need stitches. Or maybe both!