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A Cute Tombstone

June 18, 2014

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Zarina Zabrisky is the author of Iron, A Cute Tombstone, and We, Monsters. I accepted a copy of A Cute Tombstone from the author for her blog tour because the description of the story (48 pages long) sounded like black humor. It is, but not necessarily in the way I expected. The story is about a woman traveling to Russia, where she grew up, to bury her mother. It begins with an old-fashioned black-and-white photo of a woman in an enormous hat, followed by a poem that begins with “maybe/her love was a hat.” The poem is followed by another old-fashioned black-and-white photo of a woman, bareheaded, and then the story begins with “My mother died last week, and on Sunday I flew back to Russia.”

When I asked the author a few questions about her story by e-mail, she answered in some ways I didn’t expect.

To what extent (if any) is the story of burying the mother autobiographical, or what kind of experience is it drawn from?
I went through a very similar experience as my main character: coming back to Russia from America to bury my mother and suddenly being confronted with political and psychological changes in my former country that made the funeral management pure hell. I had a hard time sleeping and I wrote down everything that happened, step-by-step, as I have a habit of writing in my notebooks. Later, I wrote a story using the details from those notes, as I often write stories. In the process of writing, though, the main characters have mutated into different people–and that’s, again, what usually happens. Lyn and her mother are characters but the ordeal they are dealing with is very real.
Also, in my story “mother” stands for “Motherland” and therefore the personal experience of burying a parent turns into parting with the home country.

How do you see the photos as related to the story?
This story is very personal to me. I dedicated it to my mother. The photograph for the story is of her at 16, and I have chosen it as it is beautiful, simple and her face has an alarmed, intense expression, almost mournful and accusative… and she’s wearing a small pin on her heart that we all were forced to wear, with Lenin’s head floating on a blood-red banner. To me, she’s almost asking, “What have you done to me?”
The photograph preceding the poem is a portrait of my great-great-aunt, a wondrous and adventurous super-successful and emancipated woman who, according to the family lore, owned the most fashionable hat store on Nevsky Prospect, the main thoroughfare in St. Petersburg in 1900s. She was known for her insane hat designs, independence and often traveled to Paris to bring the new haut couture to the fashionistas of St. Petersburg. You can read this, and a lot more in her striking face: haunting eyes, so intent and alert, her sensual mouth almost invisibly curved in a hint of a smile. As if she perceives the decades of wars, revolutions, hunger, losses and destruction. After the revolution, all private property was expropriated by the state of workers and peasants and her heavenly hats with their hallucinatory feathers and silks were of no use. I don’t know what happened to her. But how proudly she wears her impossible creations on her head…

How do you see the poem as related to the story? How do you read the lines “maybe/she was a hat”?
Women in exile, women in love, in grief, in death. The hat is a metaphor of the illusory quality of life.

What do you see as the effect of tradition on rites of passage like surviving a parent’s death?
I was thinking about it during both my father’s and mother’s funerals. Perhaps, following the tradition and rituals and succumbing to the conventional ways of grieving–church services, wakes, etc–puts the inconceivable in the context of human daily life and, more than anything, provides comfort and makes death almost understandable. The advantage of resisting these pre-fabricated comforts is the possibility to face your own emotional world and find out how you really feel–on your own, without the crutches provided by tradition. Fiddler on the Roof answer, in a way.

Do you think it’s true that in Russia, as in the U.S., it’s easier to have a church service as a funeral or memorial service because so many people expect it?
Russian religious history is very different from the U.S.’s. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union banished all religions. Churches were turned into warehouses, swimming pools and administrative buildings. Most people were atheists. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, after about seventy years of the complete absence of religious culture in the country, faith became a possibility. Putin’s government promptly used the interest to religion to fill the newly created void of ideology. Instead of communist guidelines, the KGB set a mean steel propaganda machine that pushed the Russian Orthodox religion on masses. Lyn is dealing with the consequences of this campaign, and has to resist the church rituals on every step. The funeral is taking place in 2008. Looking back at the latest history, one can easily see that the Russian government has succeeded in its policy. The majority of the Russian population has become militantly religious, acquiring along the way the ideas of national supremacy, patriarchal traditions, intolerance and xenophobia. Thus, a church service for a memorial gains on far too sinister motifs in the context of modern Russia than, say, in San Francisco where it is just a matter of free choice.

Why do the funeral people all wink? What do you think this might say about people who deal with grieving family members each day?
Their winking reminds me of Gravediggers from Hamlet. It has the wit and wisdom of the jesters, on a more philosophical level. On the more literal level, corrupt, morally degraded and ethically confused (at best), those clowns are a perfect snap-shots of the bureaucratic system in Russia. Russia holds 127 ranking on the Corruption Perceptions Index for 2013 (out of 176 countries, next to Pakistan and Bangladesh.) These numbers translate into the impossibility to go about your everyday life, from getting a passport, asking for a glass of water in a hospital, or, for the purpose of this story, getting cremated or buried, without paying bribes along the way. The value of human life and dignity, once again, is completely erased.

Can you explain your reaction to the mother’s tombstone? Is part of the issue that the father gets black granite while the mother gets something that “looked like a Winnie the Pooh pop-up book”?
Not at all. This is not a matter of gender, and, frankly, at the cemeteries in Russia everyone is equal, after all, from my observation. (Russia is a sexist country, no doubt. “It’s better not to argue with women,” said Putin a week ago, and later he characterized Clinton’s comments as a sign of weakness, which is maybe “not the worst quality for a woman,” he added. And, Russia has become even the more sexist country, following the traditions of the patriarchy that are a part of the Russian Orthodox religion. Women are not allowed to enter a certain area in the church, not allowed to enter the church at all during menstruation, etc.). The reason the grave looks like a pop-up book is the gross misunderstanding. Thinking that the first name and no dates of birth and death is a sure sign of the deceased being a baby, the grave maker comes up with the Disney-like tombstone. This is the final metaphor of the major inability of being heard, the total loss of communication between Lyn and her former country. Even the tombstone she gets is wrong.

To sum up both interview and story, when the narrator was put in charge of her mother’s tombstone, the mother says “the tombstone is very important….I will draw you a picture, but for now just remember: it must match your father’s tombstone, must have my first name only and it must be elegant.” When the narrator sees that “the tombstone looked like a Winnie the Pooh pop-up book. Like a pack of bubblegum: milky-white letters, a heart, a ribbon. And a cross” she asks “did you see my picture?” and is answered “I thought this way was cuter.”

In the end, readers understand why the narrator is as appalled by the difficulty of making funeral arrangements in her native country as she was in the beginning by funeral advertising in an American Costco: “On the advertising display—“My death, my funeral, my way!”—three older but active adults were flashing orthodontically perfect smiles from tropical-beach chaise lounges.”

A Cute Tombstone is a bit like those oversized photos of the dead person’s face commonly used at the memorial service. Since Zarina mentions one in the story, I asked about her reaction to such photos, and the answer seems to me to sum up the experience of reading this story: “Death is already such a shift in reality. Twisting or enlarging the familiar features makes it worse.”

If you have been to a funeral or a memorial service for someone you loved, was there anything that helped you get through it?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. lemming permalink
    June 18, 2014 9:15 am

    Very interesting. My father has planned his memorial service down to the last detail, which I suppose means I have a template for the future –

    • June 18, 2014 9:52 am

      Yes. And I recommend a child who knows the right moment to whisper a line from George Carlin in your ear at a father’s memorial service.

  2. June 18, 2014 12:34 pm

    You have made me think about the last few funerals I’ve attended. I admit, I mostly go to visitations which I don’t recall going to when we lived in the Midwest but that might be my age when I lived there. Now I get to go to funerals of people I don’t know well(parents of friends) and ‘then’ the only funerals I attended were grandparents.
    I recall attending a joyful but very very sad funeral of the mother of a dear friend because we were able to laugh a lot during the tears. One of the songs selected (actually – I’m wondering who might have selected this since she died in an unfortunate accident) “He’s got the whole world in his hands” which I don’t think is a typical song for these events and we all clapped and sang along. I miss this wonderful lady; I am very glad we decided to attend her funeral.

    • June 18, 2014 12:38 pm

      Atypical songs might be becoming more typical. My family knows that I am entirely serious when I say I hope they will play Queen’s “Another one bites the dust” at whatever kind of ceremony they have when I die.

  3. June 27, 2014 4:48 pm

    This was really interesting! I haven’t been to many funerals but the ones I have we’re all awkward in some way but there was always something that happened to suddenly make it all ok. When my grandma died a little over a year ago everyone gathered at the wake was so stoic until a young niece got up to speak and started talking about all the things she would remember. It opened the floodgates and let everyone else, my grandma’s brothers and sisters and my dad start telling stories. And for an hour we all just sat there sharing stories and laughing and sometimes crying and I think it was so special and exactly what my grandma would have wanted.


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