Borrowing from the Dead


My brother is buried in a cemetery where permanent planters are not allowed. I don’t know why they’re not allowed; arguing with cemetery employees is about as fruitful as arguing with the occupants. In the spring, we place a planter out on my brother’s site. In the fall, we pick it up and – generally – I drive around with it in my trunk through the winter.

David’s birthday was October 8th and my dad likes to go out there and celebrate it. He bought David one of those big mylar balloons with “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” printed on the side. He attached it to the planter along with some little stuff that reminded him of who David was: a couple of cars, a cup from McDonald’s and a Chinese throwing star (of all things). The following week, he was out there again, ready to collect the planter for the winter.

David’s birthday stuff was gone.

This isn’t all that uncommon. While there are some good sized trees near my brother, it does get windy out there. Balloons can slip away even when someone is holding them. And – sadly – there is a lot of theft at cemeteries. Silk flowers, flags and other decorations end up in people’s artwork at the community college across the street.

As he was carrying the planter to the car, my dad happened to notice a familiar looking balloon. He walked over and saw it was attached to someone else’s planter! The gentleman residing there was older than David would have been, but they did share an October birthday. I tried to figure out how this would have gone down. My best guess is the living suspect came out to visit the grave and either forgot to buy their dearly departed something or forgot it was their birthday. Looking around, they noticed David’s birthday presents and transferred them over.

I tried to figure out what kind of belief system this person must have where that would somehow be considered a good thing to do. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. The first scenario I thought of was the person doesn’t believe in Heaven or Hell. If that were the case, their loved one wouldn’t be anywhere. There would be no point in moving the gifts because the person they came to visit wouldn’t appreciate anything material. On the other hand, if they did believe in an afterlife, wouldn’t their loved one be watching events transpire and be embarrassed by this faux pas across the ethereal plane?

As a card carrying Unitarian, my concept of the afterlife is a tad more nebulous than the Christian clouds and pearly gates, and I don’t believe in Hell. It’s too bad because it’s a handy place to consign some a#%hole grave robber. Without a convenient eternal pit of damnation, instead I wished they were forever stuck in traffic on the tollway, somewhere around O’Hare Airport.

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