On Christmas day, we go to place a wreath on my mother-in-law’s father’s grave. He has rested here, in Indianola City Cemetery in Mississippi’s Sunflower County, for over twenty years. His gravestone is next to that of his older brother and his brother’s wife, his recently departed sister-in-law called “Shirley,” but who, to the surprise of all, has been buried as “Shurley,” making her presence somewhat strange, as if it is another person altogether buried in the family plot.
At the graveyard, the talk turns to burials. My in-laws, each born in a different state, currently residing in another, with children scattered across the country, are not sure what to do when they die. Burn? Bury? And where? “Have your ashes mingled,” I say, only half joking. They ask what my parents will do, and I respond that they will be cremated, their ashes submerged in a body of water, though I’ve never thought to ask them where and how they would choose to drift away. Nor have I given thought to my last rites. I balance my seven-month-old on my hip as we consider the possibilities of multiple gravestones, ashes in urns, the finality of final resting places, the roots that will have to be dug up to make room for my grand-mother-in-law’s grave.
She, my mother-in-law’s mother, is in her eighties, and contemplating not just the coffin now, but the funereal send-off. She has already written instructions: the songs to be sung, the grandchildren to sing them, the Bible verses to be read, the duration of the viewing. The only problem, she says, is that she wants to hear those songs, those verses. A funeral rehearsal seems morbid. How about, we propose, a comparable birthday celebration, next year?
My grandmother is younger, but has for some time said that she is prepared for the call. “My bags are packed,” she says. “I am ready.” She has wrapped up the sari in which she is to be cremated, labeled jewelry according to intended recipients, and even selected a photo for publication in the newspapers along with her obituary. It is a terrible photo, one that hardly does her justice. I do not tell her, because she seems so keen on it, but this is one instruction we will not follow to the letter.
At the cemetery, the talk moves from last rites to life insurance. A must have, everyone agrees, for parents of a young child. My husband and I are chagrined. We have assigned no godparents, purchased no insurance policy, written no will. These are things we are supposed to do now that we are responsible for another life. We must think about deaths, our own, and figure out what will suffice in our absence, how much and whom to leave to fill the space we currently occupy. My childless, bachelor brother-in-law chimes in; he has made our daughter the beneficiary of his life insurance. We are touched beyond words, though we don’t want Mrinalini to see a penny of that money.
As we talk, our daughter is dancing on her ancestors’ graves. Well, not dancing exactly, but she has recently learned how to bounce with assistance. A little bend at the knee, an excited bop, and the effect is something like samba. Now, she sambas on the grave of Alexander Calvin Pitts, her great-great-great-great-grandfather, born in 1841, the year Martin Van Buren is succeeded by William Henry Harrison as United States President. In India, where extends another line of her family tree, it is still the era of Macaulay, years to go before the Sepoy Rebellion, before direct Crown rule, and all that follows.
She will learn some of this in school. But the textbooks won’t talk about Fannie A., wife of Alexander Pitts, her great-great-great-great-grandmother born in Maysville, Alabama. If she wants to know about her foremothers Dorothy Baird and Ruth Brandon she must come here, to Indianola, and breathe the bayou air and stand in the grass grown of their bodies, the small sprouts that show, as Whitman said, that “there is really no death… / All goes onward and outward …”
As for my side of the family, Mrinalini has met one great-great-grandmother in the flesh, held bony finger in chubby fist, sat on her lap for a multi-generational family photo, and even smiled. It will be difficult to know much about the family that came even before, the great-great-great-grandmother who died in childbirth, the other greats, all of whose flesh has gone up in smoke and who are long submerged, consumed by fish, drunk up, and scattered. All of my ancestors have been cremated with the exception of one great-grandmother, buried sitting down in the samadhi position reserved for saintly people. My daughter won’t have a graveyard to visit, just this one unmarked platform, now in someone else’s backyard in a small village in central Kerala.
We move through the Allen plot, then the Pitts, stopping to speculate about Edna and Beulah, Meredith and Julian. Who was it, a cousin asks, who used to go to Greenville every day, to wait for a train that never came? Beulah, it turns out. Beulah, who could never have guessed that a little Mrinalini would call her kin, visit her grave, and ensure that her memory stays alive well into the 21st century.
Not my kin, but my daughter’s. Not my Mississippi, but Mrinalini’s. My Mrinalini, for whom I need to purchase life insurance, but who is, it turns out, far more powerfully the insurer of mine. She ensures that I am alive to connections I couldn’t see before. She ensures that I look at trees, that I watch the dust blow over a grave, and read the names of people past with wonder. She offers up her bloodline, her ancestry, her roots to me to share in, to write about. She is at home in both India and Indianola among the living and the dead. And she is squealing now, a baby’s perfect sort of reverence.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.