As I Am, You Too Shall Be
My father’s headstone is hidden in the far corner of the cemetery, set back from the road but within earshot of passing cars and children playing in nearby backyards. Not that the sounds of the living matter to the dead.
I first saw the stone during my grandmother’s burial service at the plot next door. My father, very much alive, stood before his own grave marker and looked into the hole where his mother would soon be. In that moment, he probably imagined the earth opening up beneath his feet, his own steel casket being lowered into the sandy soil.
In the movies, the casket disappears into the earth while the family watches. More opportunity for the actors to cry, for the music to swell, for the drama to unfold. In real life, the sexton sits in a truck parked at the curb and waits for the crowd to clear. I suppose it’s to spare us the sight of our loved ones really and truly leaving us behind, but it’s unsettling to know that in our last moments above ground, it’s just us and a stranger wearing dusty coveralls.
My father’s headstone is granite. It’s similar in size and shape and color to most of the other markers in this ecumenical cemetery. The thing that sets it apart—that sets my father apart—is the saying etched below the family name:
AS YOU ARE I ONCE WAS
AS I AM YOU TOO SHALL BE
A few years after I first see the stone, when I’m in town for another grandparent’s funeral, I return to the cemetery to photograph it. I teach a class on death, and I wonder what my students will make of my father’s choice when I project the images, bringing into the classroom a life-sized headstone superimposed on a screen that usually displays banal PowerPoint slides.
I kneel to take a closer look, but when I do, I can’t focus on the name, on the bizarre saying. I see past the flecked granite and beyond the letters, as if I’m looking into a 3-D Magic Eye poster. My reflection dominates the shiny surface: a face framed by long, blond hair; smooth, unwrinkled skin. I notice, for the first time in a long time, how young I am. I have lived just three decades. My grandmother, buried a few feet away, would be 101 if she was still alive. My father is 70.
As you are, I once was. As I am, you too shall be. I try to imagine the day ten years down the road—twenty if I’m lucky—when, for my father, the statement stops being witty and becomes true. And after that, it will be my turn to die.
I photograph the headstone from different angles, but no matter where I stand, my reflection is part of the picture. The inscription is emblazoned on my chest, across my face, over my knees. It’s impossible to remove this evidence of the living from a marker for the dead.
Yes, I will die, but today is not that day. The sun shines and the birds sing. The grass is green; the leaves are just beginning to turn. My sleeves are rolled up on an unusually warm fall day, and instead of being trapped in my stuffy classroom playing devil’s advocate as my students debate the meaning of the word “death,” I’m outside and breathing fresh air on a Tuesday afternoon.
I’m here, in this corner of the cemetery, because my grandfather died four days ago. My grandmother died four years ago, and my father has yet to die. I have yet to die.
I walk to my car, drive across town to eat scalloped potatoes and open-faced sandwiches in celebration of the dead, and take my place among the living.
Signe Jorgenson’s work has been published in Dos Passos Review, Fugue, Oyez Review, Sonora Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage and is the owner of Signe Jorgenson Editorial Services (www.signejorgenson.com). She is also Co-Editor in Chief at Stoneboat Literary Journal.