By Robert Keast
“Would bagpipes be possible?” Mrs. Stewart asked.
“You could arrange that?”
“Certainly,” I said.
And I can. Honoring such requests is what I am called to do.
“Could it be someone who knows ‘Amazing Grace’?”
“I’ll make sure.”
Under better circumstances she would not ask about “Amazing Grace.” She would know that a piper can play that song as surely as a fish can swim. But the death of a plant is the loss of a living companion in the home. We grieve. And in grief people forget their own addresses and their siblings’ ages, so who should be expected to remember the bagpiper’s canon, even when their surname is Stewart?
“And if he’ll agree to two songs,” she said, “I’d also like ‘Scotland the Brave.’”
She handed the brown sword fern to me. Two dozen plants still thrived in her living room and dining room: more ferns, along with philodendrons, morning glories, and a pair of African violets. Just the motion of transferring hands, from Mrs. Stewart’s to mine, caused a few crisp fronds to drop to her hardwood floor. The floor and the plant were nearly the same color now.
Mrs. Stewart was not the first in our village of condominiums to request a bagpiper. Two autumns ago Ray Morrison buried a glory lily, also to the strains of “Amazing Grace.” My daughter would not have approved. She insists on originality in all things. She cooks outrageous meals every night and won’t even glance at a cookbook, and is working toward a graduate degree that she invented herself. Her wedding was nothing but obscure songs—she aimed to use music that had never before been used in nuptials, and she likely succeeded.
As a minister (of a kind), I encourage the more common choices. They are how we share our joy and our sorrow with the larger community.
“Don’t bother with drummers,” Mrs. Stewart added. “Some of the more sensitive neighbors might not care for the drums, and a full pipe and drum corps seems a bit much.”
More fronds fell when I put the sword fern into the bed of my pickup.
The next afternoon Tom Murray—a man I know from church—arrived in his kilt and cap. I’d dug the hole that morning. We were ready to lay Mrs. Stewart’s sword fern to rest. More than most plants, ferns make me consider the story of life on this planet. I cannot imagine Earth without ferns. Three hundred million years ago, ferns were breathing. They were drinking rainwater. They reproduced.
Think of all the ferns that are at this moment a part of the soil.
A single plant, somewhere, had to be the very first fern. Where was that, and what genetic mutation made it happen?
Imagine the ferns that have died sudden deaths… smothered by volcanic ash, or chomped by dinosaurs. Ferns withered in heat waves on continents that no longer exist.
Tom performed “Amazing Grace,” Mrs. Stewart and I took turns covering the plant, the afternoon wind picked up, and Tom played “Scotland the Brave” as we tamped the loose dirt.
There are seven hundred condominiums in this village, and mine is the western-most one. I also own the two wild acres beyond my condo. This is where I bury the houseplants of our community. I began this ministry fifteen years ago. The calling was not a sensational one—my story has no road-to-Damascus moment. Harriet Tunk had lost her cactus of many years. She lived just north of me, though she has since died. Poor Harriet could not bring herself to bag the cactus and toss it in the Dumpster, so she asked if I would bury it in my field. And, since she was approaching eighty years old, she requested that I dig the hole and place the plant in it. I handled the cactus with thick gardening gloves. I had one knee on the ground and was lowering the cactus when Harriet, to my surprise, began a eulogy. She spoke of the privilege of living with such a beautiful and misunderstood plant, and she thanked it for sharing its sparkle and its spirit with her. The cactus had become so pale and droopy in death, but Harriet’s words honored the plant it had been.
Other neighbors learned of the service and, one by one, began asking. I have wholeheartedly obliged.
“I’d like to pour vegan stew over them before we cover them with dirt,” Cybelle Pranger told me.
The governing board of our village would not be keen on such a rite, since they fear everything from birdseed to the crumbs of an ice cream cone invites skunks and raccoons, but I didn’t mention this to Cybelle. My acres are beyond the board’s jurisdiction, much as they may wish it otherwise.
“I think it’s a lovely gesture,” I said.
Truthfully, the smell coming from her slow cooker was unlikely to entice raccoons.
“I fed them stew in life, and they thrived on it,” she said.
“I’m sure they were lovely papyrus plants.”
At her request, I dug a single hole rather than side-by-side holes. “Life is about mingling, and death is about mingling,” she said. She bid farewell to the dwarf papyrus plants at sunset, splashing them with their final meal and humming a melody I did not recognize.
Cybelle gave me a lidded container of stew. Three days later, when I fed it to the garbage disposal, I experienced a twinge of guilt—as if I were dumping holy wine into the sink.
What I do is a calling. I say this not to aggrandize myself but to explain my motive. I bury plants and minister to the people who lived with them because my neighbors need this. Spiritually, they crave it. Our society offers no salve. We have no institution to validate the pain they feel, so I have become that institution. And, as with any church in its infancy, I have faced a degree of persecution. A few pastors have accused me of sacrilege. Homeowners assert that my field is devaluing their property and is violating zoning codes. Overprotective parents fret that I am scaring their children and exposing them to witchcraft. Recently, Kathleen Hesskopper called and accused me of taking sides in her divorce.
“Mark told me you’re burying his orchid tomorrow,” she said. Kathleen and Mark are split, but they have condos about a hundred yards from each other. Kathleen bought hers first. The divorce had been her idea; Mark moving to this village had not been.
“Yes,” I said, “I am.”
“He wants you to bury it next to my orchid, doesn’t he?”
“I’m sorry, Kathleen, but I can’t talk about this.”
“You’re burying them side by side.”
“You know these matters are confidential.”
My confidentiality is neither a legal requirement nor an ecclesiastical obligation, but I believe in it nevertheless.
“You need to bury his orchid in some other part of your field. Better yet, in another field altogether.”
“He is in mourning.”
“Maybe I’m still mourning my deceased orchid, the orchid I bought before Mark bought his. It was the greatest roommate I ever had, and here’s how I need to mourn: I want you to keep my dead orchid the hell away from Mark’s dead orchid.”
My ex-wife lives in another state. I do not know what her house looks like, inside or out, and I don’t care to know. So, Mark’s interest in his former spouse’s plants is… it is nothing to which I can relate.
I have buried my own plants in this field. It is a piteous task to remove the dead from one’s own condo. Somebody else should minister to me. But there is no somebody else. In business a complete monopoly may lead to riches, but in spiritual matters it is a source of loneliness rather than wealth. I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but when I dig a hole for a dead plant of my own, I wonder about the last Neanderthal. The final member of a species with no descendants deserves a ceremony, but the reason he most needs a ceremony is also why he cannot have one—no one remains to perform it.
My daughter and her husband live in Madison, Wisconsin. She has a plant in the field: a bonsai that she had overwatered and then, to compensate, had underwatered. The underwatering was a failed effort to fortify the roots. She was sixteen when the bonsai died. “Just give me a shovel and tell me where I can bury it,” she’d told me. I watched that morning from my window as she dug the hole. One of her school friends stood behind her, holding the bonsai. My daughter finished the grave, took the bonsai from her friend, dropped it in the hole, and haphazardly covered the dead plant.
She was in high school, and she was minimizing my role in her life wherever she could. She writes songs now and sometimes plays at coffee shops. I’ve told her if she gives me a week’s notice I could drive up and hear her sing. When she was younger, she wrote a song called “Lament in C-Sharp”—it was in the key of A minor. That’s my daughter’s sense of humor.
“I guess I’ve killed another one,” Ben Benedict said.
“No, you didn’t.”
“I did. I know about spider mites and how to recognize the signs. I wasn’t attentive.”
Plant burials are rife with self-incrimination.
I told him, “You’re a good plant-carer, Ben.”
“If that were true, this would still be alive and this hole wouldn’t be here, and you and I wouldn’t know each other as well as we do. I know you don’t think of plants as ever dying, but I’d prefer not hear it today.”
Originally I had intended to build on my land. That is why I’d bought it, of course. My house was to be nothing but windows and light and plants. A room with skylights, a room with a stone floor, a wall of glass, and humidifiers throughout. I had design books. I had photos and plans. There would be a room for succulents. High ceilings to accommodate the potted trees, and to let the ivy climb. It wasn’t going to be a plant-friendly house so much as it would be a human-friendly conservatory—a greenhouse that permitted a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, and a bath… a bathroom full of steam and light and dragon plants and aloe vera. I knew to the inch where the house was going to be built, so when I buried Harriet Tunk’s cactus I dug the hole at a distance from the future footprint. Then I buried a second plant, and a third. I dug more holes, and they moved closer to my invisible front door, closer to my unrealized living room’s exterior wall. By the time I buried a dried-out banana plant where my bed was supposed to go, I had accepted my land’s fate. A dream house, after all, is temporary. Even Versailles someday will crumble. But plant energy returns to the soil and sprouts anew and goes on into eternity. I would rather contribute to that. And the grieving people—it would be wrong to put my fantasies of a glass wall ahead of their pain. Tending to those who mourn matters more than windows and thinking I can own the sunlight.
So my two acres have become a field of flat stones. I mow the field often, and I weed-whack around the gravestones. Almost from the beginning I chose not to make perfect rows. Nature does not die in parallel lines. I did not want it to look like the Lorraine American Cemetery in France. Maybe laying out graves like graph points is fitting for soldiers, as a response to war’s chaos, but the plants I bury are rejoining the cacophony of life.
“You do the gravestone, too?”
“Usually,” I said. “A few artistically inclined plant carers have done it themselves.”
“I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.”
George was new to our village and new to living with plants. “What do you write on it?” he asked.
“Most often, I write the kind of plant and the month and year. You’re welcome to take a walk through the field and read the other stones.”
“You don’t put my name on it?”
“I can. People don’t like to see their names on a gravestone, even if it’s as the carer of a houseplant.”
“You say ‘carer’ and not ‘owner,’ don’t you?”
I agreed that I did.
“Is that a hippie thing?”
I have cremated plants on many occasions. I use charcoal lighter fluid, but I don’t squirt right from the Kingsford bottle. The mourners should not feel that their plant is being barbecued. Instead, I pour the fluid into a thickly glazed ceramic pot. I do this before the mourners arrive. After they put their plant in the hole, they soak its dry leaves and its brittle stalks, and they step back and I quietly toss in a match. Whenever I watch the smoke rise, I think about Heaven. Nobody believes in a heaven for plants. No one pictures anthuriums passing through the pearly gates. Good people supposedly go to Heaven, and children are told that their deceased dogs and cats and guinea pigs are now living there. But the more plants I bury, the more I doubt Heaven. A plant funeral will make one see the silliness in the term “afterlife.” What comes after life? That is like asking what comes after infinity.
Glenn was well into his flask by the time he bore his plant to the graveside.
“To the song of India,” he said and took another sip. “I won’t get another.”
Fifteen years ago I would have squirmed, but now I was at ease in the silence that accompanied Glenn’s drinking.
He knelt next to the grave and cradled the plant. It was brown and emaciated, but in his eyes was the memory of the plant when it was green and thriving, and the memory of himself as a younger man. Finally he set it in the ground. Rising, Glenn pulled his phone from his pocket and began to play a song. It was jazz. After a moment, he paused the music.
“Know what this one is called?” he asked.
“I don’t recognize it.”
“‘Song of India.’”
“Is that so?”
He took a longer drink from the flask. “Know who did it?”
“Duke Ellington?” I guessed.
Glenn tapped the phone and the song resumed. He focused his gaze on the far corner of my property. Together, we listened to the music. When the song was over, he knelt again and patted the plant.
“I just found that song today, actually,” he said. “I don’t often go for jazz, but I wish I’d discovered that one before. You hear how music can nourish plants. What if that’s what it had needed?”
“All living things have their time.”
Glenn scattered some dirt over the plant, then poured two shots’ worth of liquor into the grave. He said, “I lived with this plant longer than I did with either of my wives.”
About the Author:
Robert Keast teaches high school English south of Detroit. He is a former newspaper reporter. Robert’s writing credits include Post Road, The Sun, Michigan History, and Crab Creek Review.