Plot Shopping: Why I Prefer a Light-Hearted Epitaph Over The Eternal Facebook Wall

A tomb stone for John Doe that reads he was well liked with a thumbs up and a number indicating his facebook likes.

Photo: Chairboy/Getty Images

The day I bought a burial plot was biblical. It was a morning near the end of last summer, during a rainstorm of Noah-like proportions. The parking lot behind the Lippa Green Building on north Bathurst Street, which housed the office for Toronto Hebrew Memorial Parks, was crowded enough that I had a quarter of a mile walk through pond-sized puddles to reach it. Despite my umbrella, I arrived half-soaked and late. The security measures at the building made me even later getting to the second floor, where, it seemed, no one had heard of the cemetery office. I finally managed to locate it, tucked into a corner of a hallway, a small utilitarian friendly space that belied its function.

The first person I spoke to at the office seemed cut from the same cloth. She sat me down and went through the basics. No actual transfer of land title was involved in the purchase of plots for myself and my wife, just internment rights; we would be, in effect, tenants, it struck me, in whatever section of the cemetery was available at the time. Our fee paid in advance only for the opening of the graves and their closing — the chapel and funeral fees, including coffins, would have to be taken care of beforehand by us or by our family or proxies, at the time of death. In case I was interested, Toronto Hebrew’s policy mandated that no Jewish person would be denied a plot, regardless of their ability to pay. As far as payment went, by the way, would I rather use a cheque or credit card?

“Credit card?” I hadn’t considered the possibility. “Sure,” she said. “A lot of people prefer it. That way, they get the points.”

Twenty minutes later, I walked out of the Lippa Green Building. The rain had stopped, and brilliant blue slabs of sky were breaking through the clouds; I half expected to see doves. I now knew where I would spend eternity.

There are currently 7.4 billion people living on Earth. According to demographers, an additional 101 billion have lived and died on the planet since people appeared. The living represent seven per cent of all those ever born, the dead 93 per cent. Purchasing a plot is essentially like getting ready to move from the seven per cent to the 93 per cent, which population-wise is like moving from Victoria to Toronto.

Or from Toronto to Shanghai. Demographically, it’s a move to the big time. Except, of course, chances are slim that you’ll get to enjoy it. Hence the wisdom of using the points beforehand.

Ironic dissonance is half of the game when it comes to cemetery residence. A plot is a place that is more simultaneously deep and deeply shallow, more momentous and mundane, more deadly serious and seriously irrelevant than any other address you will ever call your own. Shakespeare knew all about this when he had Hamlet pull the jester Yorick’s skull out of his burial plot and make crude and cruel fun of the former “excellent fellow,” “fellow of infinite jest,” like a Danish Don Rickles roasting a heckler.

On the deadly serious side are plots’ real-estate logistics. According to the rules and regulations of Hebrew Memorial Parks, for example, standard grave openings for “All Caskets” are to measure precisely eight feet by two feet 6 inches; for “Vaults” eight feet by three feet two inches; and for “Infant Graves” three feet by 15 inches. Further, all monuments (tombstones) must be made from “one solid slab of granite” eight inches thick in one of the following permissible granite colours: pink, grey, black, brown, red, blue and green. A product called Stanstead Granite, a.k.a. Canadian Grey, is most emphatically not to be used “except for bases.” In addition, Hebrew Memorial, along with many other cemetery corporations, reserves the right to disallow any tombstone design or inscription considered “offensive to the community.” No human “likenesses” are permitted, other than hands, and no animal figures, except stylized lions or doves.

I have personal experience with this last section. When my father and mother died, five years and three years ago respectively, my two sisters and I decided we wanted people who hadn’t known them, future grandchildren and strangers alike, to be able to walk past their gravestones and get some idea of who they actually were. For my father’s epitaph, we settled on a list of the names and nicknames he went by, followed by the phrase: “A Constant Delight.” Under that, we proposed, in parenthesis, “Who Turned Out De Light?” — the punchline my father was 100 per cent guaranteed to have provided had he seen the straight line when he was alive. We were worried, though, that the line wouldn’t pass cemetery regulations. It did. For my mother’s epitaph, we managed to get our funny Shosh Teitel quote in — “I Really Like Your Shoes” — but the last nickname on our proposed list for her — “Tush Teitel” — got shot down as inappropriate. Now, having become a plot owner in my own right, I find myself wanting my two-year-old granddaughter, who does know me, to be able to recognize when she’s old enough to tour a cemetery that it is not some generic dead guy under that stone and grass but me and only me, the unique schlemiel she once accepted long cylindrical wafer cookies from like a queen, like Lucy Ricardo getting a birthday present from Ricky.

I may not be alone. According to a senior consultant I spoke to at Landmark Monuments in Toronto, people today are increasingly likely to buy their monuments in advance; and 15 per cent of them actively participate in the design of the monument and the text inscribed upon it. Most do this to spare their survivors both expense and stress when they leave this earthly sphere, but there has to be at least a handful, I’m convinced, who also wouldn’t mind having their singularity singled out epitaph-wise. These are the folks who are spiritually akin, maybe, to the children of Abram J. Teitel (the J. standing for nothing more than middle initialdom). Or to the Hollywood iconoclast W.C. Fields, who supposedly proposed for his marker: “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” Or to the British Goon Show wit Spike Milligan, whose tombstone epitaph actually ran, “I told you I was ill.”

Fields and Milligan, of course, were professional wits. What, you may ask, about the not-so-unique schlemiel (yours truly, say) who wants to inscribe his gravestone him or herself but doesn’t know where to start? In that case, there’s always the “predictive text epitaph.” This is the brainchild of author Alex Zalben, who challenged his Twitter followers to create their own eulogies by using the AI feature your cellphone employs to finish your texting sentences. Zalben typed, “Here lies Alex Zalben. He was …” and then let the chain of words his phone generated complete the thought. The result? “Here lies Alex Zalben. He was clearly not wrong.” Other Twitter predictives: “Here lies Mark Hoppus. He was so awesome he did not have a great name.” “Here lies Laura. She was so good I suspect she actually enjoyed both her bath and her blow to the head.” “Here lies Ann Telnaes. She seems taller that way.” “Here lies Nate Punzalan. He’s going to be a little late to the party.”

And mine: “Here lies Jay Teitel. He was going to go to Costco.”
If life is beyond our control, why do we make decisions? To pretend, maybe, that it’s not. We can’t choose not to die but we can choose in a way what comes next-to-last. We can choose a certain order of penultimate priorities — the final image, say, we would like to be thinking of when someone does turn out “de lights.” Ultimately, it may be all we can choose.

And yet, anyone who strolls through a cemetery scanning epitaphs will probably end up concluding that most people still seem to favour solemnity over individual quirkiness, decorum over inside jokes. Possibly this is because most people would rather not dwell on the subversive message under all black humour, that death renders life not heroic or even tragic but just kind of beside the point, i.e., most people will take the points they get for buying a plot, but they won’t muse about the irony involved. There are exceptions. William Shakespeare had Macbeth call life a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.” But most life, of course, is not a tale full of sound and fury. Nor does most life end with a whimper. Most life is a tale of shopping and talking and getting a car wash. It ends not with a whimper but with, if you’re lucky, an absent-minded wave of “Thanks,” the kind you might get from a person you let cut in front of you in traffic. Life is filling time. It’s waiting for a table in a deli. It’s Facebook.

Sometime before the end of the 21st century — in the year 2098, according to Hachem Saddiki, a computer science PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — Facebook will have more dead people with accounts on it than living ones. Sadikki based his calculation on the number of people joining Facebook every year and the number of users who die annually. As of three years ago, in 2015, Facebook already counted more than 20 million people who had created Facebook profiles and died since. The site is in the process of becoming a digital cemetery, less a website than a gravesite, with
virtual plots in the form of online memorials. It is moving beyond the cloud into something even cloudier: eternity.

Granite can crumble, monuments can topple and the analogue dead can (and do) disappear. But the Facebook dead will theoretically just roll on, as unextinguishable as the naked buttocks of a 17-year-old boy pressed against the back window of a limo on prom night, there to be preserved for all time in the amber of social media. Until recently, the Facebook profiles of deceased account-holders could only be “memorialized” — frozen so they stopped appearing in searches and could only be viewed by the user’s friends; deleted on request; or simply left unchanged. But in 2015, the site started letting users designate a “legacy contact,” someone allowed to post on the user’s timeline after their death to “respond to friend requests, archive the user’s posts and update [the user’s] cover and profile photos.” The upside of the digital model is obvious. The physical plot I just bought has a best-before date. If I choose the virtual Facebook plot, though, not only will my name and face endure, they’ll be curated.

But Facebook, it turns out, has a tendency to make over death the way it does everything else, into something eternal and banal. When, on the afternoon of Nov. 11, 2016, Facebook inadvertently informed millions of its users that they were dead (by switching normal profile pages with the memorialized versions), reactions varied. Some users wondered why they were dead. Others, assailed by FOMO (fear of missing out), wondered why they weren’t. That’s the banal part. The eternal part — the deathless aspect of Facebook death – is worse. Deathless death is overkill. Plots, it strikes me, should be forgotten in the end, if for nothing else than to release the plotless, our living progeny. A plot is the ultimate empty nest. And so it should be.

In fact, Facebook or Google or the cloud are the last things we should give our last words to, predictive or otherwise. We should not let them write our epitaphs or freeze our last frames. Those arrangements should be left to us, like the choice of our final real resting place, with a minimum of micromanagement and an acknowledgement that mystery will be involved.

“The question is not ‘Is there an afterlife?’” the old joke goes, “but ‘Is it catered?’” Myself, these days I like to think of Eternity not as the afterlife at all but as life per se — just longer, with that freeze frame to get things rolling. So eternity is also mundane and profound, it’s pizza and pole stars, it’s remembering a place, a joke, a thing about which you shouldn’t have laughed but did.

It’s your granddaughter’s face. It’s buying a plot.

Reverse that.