Not Set in Stone

My boyfriend’s grave is littered with cheap tributes — but no permanent headstone. He deserves better.

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Bigam cemetery names

It’s been 10 years since he died, but there’s still no headstone with his name on it in the cemetery where he’s buried. His father’s name is there, the same as his, and if I don’t look at the dates engraved below or at the difference in their middle initials, I can almost bring myself to pretend it’s for him. It’s not the same, but it’s the only option.

It seems like I’ve been there to visit him a million times. Has it really only been 10 years? And at the same time, has it really been 10 years already? I remember when I counted the time since his death in Thursdays – one week, two weeks, three. For quite a while now, though, I’ve counted the days not in weeks or even in months, but in years. And, now, in decades.

It was Valentine’s Day 2005 when my friend Sean and I got into my car after the memorial service to drive to the cemetery just a few blocks away. Unseasonably warm for Ohio, it was raining instead of snowing, and the weather lent an appropriately morose setting to an emotionally devastating day. When a song came on the radio, Sean said quietly, “The name of this band is Funeral for a Friend.” It was catchy alliteration we’d never thought twice about, but in that moment, the phrase hung morbidly in the air between us. Funeral for our friend. Funeral for my dead boyfriend.

Every year on the anniversary of his death, cheap holiday decorations litter the grave that doesn’t have his name on it: glitter hearts made of cardboard, a shiny red-and-white tinsel wreath, a banner of little felt hearts all strung together in a row, and dozens of little, red glass stars in homage to the tattoo he had inked onto his forearm on his 18th birthday. Weathered by the elements, these brightly colored objects quickly become dirty and broken, lending a stark impermanence to a place marked by the permanence of death. They’re meant as tributes, but their tacky ephemeral quality and lack of dignity make my stomach turn.

All these disposable objects are meant to honor his life, and yet there is still no lasting headstone denoting his death.

Bigam, Modern Loss, photo of Dave

Dave Kozak

Below the bench bearing his father’s name is what remains of a small, square tile I painted, years ago already, that used to read,”Wherever you are, angel for me” (lyrics to a Jimmy Eat World song) with his initials and the dates of his birth and death written in tiny script underneath. By now, it, too, is faded and weather-worn, most of the paint chipped away from the porcelain. All that remains is “DJK, ’84-’05,” which is the most important part – but now that it’s ruined and dirt-covered like the decorations that surround it, it gives me no comfort anymore.

On the eighth anniversary of his death, I arrived at his grave feeling peaceful and calm, the proud result of years of therapy and efforts to manage my grief. As I stood atop that patch of grass, though, his body buried six feet below, I began to grow angry again. Just like every other time I visited, I found myself wondering: Why did his mother decide not to buy him a headstone? I haven’t seen her since the day of his funeral, so I’ll likely never know.

What I do know is that he deserves better.

Years from now, when the rest of us are all dead and gone, too – when no one is leaving tacky decorations at his grave anymore – no one will ever know that he is here. His father’s name will live on, carved in stone for eternity, but his name will disappear into the wind, no evidence that he ever lived or died at all. It will be like he never existed.

That day, I picked up two of the little red stars strewn across the grass and pocketed them, a reminder to myself of the promise I was about to make. I set a fresh spray of yellow roses atop the bench – a pop of foreign, unsullied color amidst all the dirty red – and with the stars clinking in my pocket, I whispered aloud a promise. I vowed to him that I would not return to this place without something more permanent bearing his name, something that tells whoever comes here that he lived, and that he died, and that he’s buried here, too.

“Here lies the other Dave Kozak, the one who was only 20,” the one who loved me.

Kate Bigam is a writer and social media strategist living in Northeast Ohio. She blogs at tweets as @heyescapist.

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