Have you ever awakened with that FEELING of foreboding or the fear of death, and more important what will come after death? It usually lasts through the first cup of coffee then slowly goes away. Well it happened to me the other morning at about 3 a.m., so I got up and had that cup of coffee and came to the realization that Dickie Becker is completely to blame for it.
It all went down just the way he said it would. Dickie has been the cemetery superintendent for about 35 years and lost track of whose plot was whose and how many plots were available and where they might be about a year later, having lost the plot plan that had been passed on to him, borrowing the town’s master copy and promptly losing that as well. He’s had me in his confidence on this for 15 years, which is when that ball in the pit of my stomach knotted up and stayed that way. Until last week when Dickie died.
It happened over on the mainland where he was staying with his estranged wife who had driven herself crazy trying to live on the island. Dickie fell down her cellar stairs and died at just about the time the town figured out that it had sold about three times as many cemetery plots as it had available for sale. Dickie dutifully gave the money from each sale to the town treasurer but stopped writing anything down a long time ago. It was a pretty easy thing to have happen, really. A week-long bender here coupled with a few plot sales and maybe another week-long bender there and a few more plot sales and it’s over. Why even try after that? I’d seen him show the same plot to 10 different people who walked away quite comforted in the knowledge that “it” had been taken care of. What saved him from earlier exposure is the fact that 75 per cent of the people who bought plots were summer visitors or boat people who just wanted to be buried in such a beautiful place overlooking Vineyard Sound watched over nightly by the Gay Head Light.
So even if a buyer had seen a plot, almost no one else in the family had, and upon their deaths they got what they got. Dickie would just point to a spot. “There it is, he [or she] just fell in love with it.”
The local families didn’t care. They all have family plots which are pretty well-guarded, because even though nobody said anything it was pretty well understood that Dickie could not be that drunk for that long and have kept any kind of records at all about anything. As long as there was an open plot when someone died, he was safe. Caskets would arrive with a day’s notice containing people who had not been on the island in 30 years; some had never been there at all. Dickie always said that he’d be dead before anyone figured it out. And he was right.
Dickie, to his credit, chose not to be buried on the island. He’s in a jar in his wife’s clothes closet in New Bedford. So here we are, trying to figure out what to do about the oversold problem in the cemetery. A year ago it would have been easy to just extend the cemetery down closer to the beach, but with that big erosion scare going on over on the Vineyard — not without merit I might add — that idea has been tabled indefinitely. No one seemed comfortable with the possibility of poking out some year down the road and floating off to Long Island. There are no Yankee fans in that cemetery. Lots of crazy ideas have come and gone, including a decree that everybody be buried standing up, even the ones already in the ground. The only people pushing that idea were part of a group that wanted to find out for sure if Capt. Israel Carter, a whale boat captain a century ago, was really buried sitting in his rocking chair smoking his clay pipe with a telescope in his lap, facing south out to sea. That too was ultimately voted down by the people who really didn’t want to know the truth and liked the story the way it is.
Obviously this was of no consequence to me. I was never stupid enough to buy a plot in the first place, even when Dickie got a little bored with summer people one year and a lot drunk and decided to have a half-price sale on cemetery plots. He and his friend Jim Beam set up a card table down at the dock. I stayed way clear of that whole thing and have no idea if or how many plots were sold before he passed out. Even if I had bought one, I’d have to run down to the cemetery and sit on it whenever a casket arrived on the boat.
I do have those nights, though. Another suggestion was to go Viking-style and put a few bodies in a skiff full of driftwood, set it on fire and push it out to sea on the outgoing tide. That lost quite a bit of steam when it was pointed out that an outgoing tide eventually becomes an incoming tide and if the Jersey shore had a problem with a few Band-Aids and syringes, Charlie Wilson’s partially burned foot washing up on the beach would definitely bring it to another level. Digger Philips had the idea to petition the government to expand the leper cemetery over on Penikese Island, but that was met with dead silence. We may have a black president but there are certain prejudices that haven’t even been touched yet. Not by us anyway. So here we are, waking up in the middle of the night worrying about what comes after that last plot goes. And as far as that other stuff you thought this was going to be about, we are almost all going to heaven, even a few Republicans I know and love. Like my brother.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.