One of the many things that makes New Orleans such a wonderful, surreal, and spooky place is its above-ground cemeteries, especially the Cemetery of St. Louis (pronounced “san loo-ee” ) on the edge of the French Quarter.
Because so much of New Orleans is at or below the water table, caskets had a tendency to refuse to stay underground. The cemetery at St. Louis is composed almost entirely of these familiar narrow mausoleums.
I learned on a tour once that these crypts can actually contain the remains of whole generations of a single family. They contain space above ground for two bodies, and a shallow pit below the lower shelf.
Once sealed, these above-ground tombs become stone ovens in the hot Louisiana sun, effectively cremating the remains in less than a year. In fact, health laws require that once sealed, a crypt cannot be re-opened for a year and a day.
But the pattern in these old mausoleums that have been in families for generations is this: once re-opened for the interment of a recently deceased, the ashes from the previous burial are carefully removed and placed in the pit below … where they mingle with the ashes of their ancestors for something like eternity.
There is a distinctive non-Western message in such a tradition. In death, as in life, nothing lasts forever. For all of us, our greatest legacy is the one carried on by the family and loved ones we leave behind. Our children and grand-children and friends will carry and pass on specific memories – and attitudes and values – that they associate with us, the mortal and finite person on earth. Once they, too, have passed, we can all hope that the attitudes and values have been passed on again to yet more generations. But the specific memories will most likely not be.
I think about this when I think about my own legacy. I like the idea of being interred in the columbarian at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where my children can bring their grandchildren after I am gone, to see the church and the school that they worshipped in, learned in, and worked summers at – and see the marker for Sally and me while they are there.
We also plan to leave a chunk of our financial estate to Trinity, assuming the parish has decided by then how it wants to use additional estate gifts. See, Trinity already has more than ten times it’s annual operating budget in assets, which are held in investments that Trinity has historically treated as a perpetual endowment. I have no interest in leaving several thousand, or tens of thousands, more dollars into a magic lock box that will be spitting out four cents on the dollar a hundred and a million years from now.
It strikes me that trying to make one’s gift last forever – to make it dictate the behavior of the recipient for generations into the future – is futile and even counter-productive.
It’s one more effort to cheat death, to defy the nature of the universe, to play God. It doesn’t work.
My estate gift to Trinity will come with the expectation that it be spent immediately, or at most, invested in such a way as to generate ten cents on the dollar for twenty years, at which point it will be exhausted.
Just in time for the next generation to make a similar gift to replace it.
At that point the ashes of my gift can be commingled with the ashes of the gifts of the saints that went before me.