This morning I was reading a book by a guy who was somewhat obsessed with a famous writer's former house. "This is his house forever," he writes.
Forever may be one of the words we use most carelessly--or at least much more metaphorically than we think we do. I'm forever (!) reading about things or people or ideas or contributions or whatevers that are going to last forever. Really? Forever is a comforting word. But a self-deceptive one, too.
Back in English 101, Summer 1962, Hiram College, my professor, Dr. Charles F. McKinley, read aloud to us Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" (my first experience with it)--the poem about the broken statue in the desert, the statue with the bold inscription: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." (Link to entire poem) Shelley, a few lines later, referred to the statue as a "colossal wreck."
And so it is with all our monuments, actual and metaphorical. Have you ever visited an old cemetery? Tried to read inscriptions and epitaphs? Time effaces most of them--and it doesn't take very long. I've recently visited Imlaystown, New Jersey, a few times, looking for the Imlay family cemetery there. (Gilbert Imlay, who grew up there, later wrote a novel and became the lover of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, whose husband (Percy Bysshe Shelley) wrote "Ozymandias.") But nothing remains. Even local historians are uncertain where the stones once were--the stones long ago smashed, stolen, covered over ... who knows?
Oddly, Gilbert Imlay's own burial stone on the Isle of Jersey (isn't that odd?) (he died in 1828) is also gone--or so illegible that no one's sure which one it is (I checked). Fortunately, years ago, someone transcribed the inscription, so we do know what it once said (translated from the original French):
November 24th. Gilbert Imlay, deceased the 20th day of the month of November one thousand eight hundred twenty-eight, 74 years old, was buried the 24th of the same month.
Closer to home ... some years ago (in 2000) I went looking in a Chicagoland cemetery (Elmwood) for the grave of William H. Chaney (d. 1903), the man who many scholars believe was the biological father of writer Jack London, whose The Call of the Wild appeared the year that Chaney died. But I learned there that his friends had not purchased "perpetual care" for him, so after twenty-five years his remains were removed and placed in a common grave--somewhere. And the Chaney plot went to someone else. (The meaning of all this? No exhumation now is possible, and thus no way to establish scientifically any alleged paternity.) (Link to my essay about this search.)
Even closer to home: The Harvey Firestone statue in Akron's Firestone Park. New construction now conceals it from motorists and pedestrians. And who is Harvey Firestone, anyway? The company he founded and knew is much altered. Gone, really. When my wife, Joyce, was a little girl living in Firestone Park, Harvey's sway was still considerable (her dad worked for Firestone). A trip to the statue was like a trip to church. Almost. (Joyce has written a wonderful book about Firestone and the Park--Link to book on Amazon.)
Nothing is forever, of course, except nothing. Will the Washington Monument be there in 100 years? Probably? A thousand? Ten Thousand? A hundred thousand? Million? You get the picture.
I don't want a cemetery plot. A stone or marker. Just scatter my ashes somewhere meaningful, for now. (The significance will be lost, very soon.) Land, sea. Wherever. And those ashes will then be a part of land/sea/whatever. Until they aren't. But definitely not "forever."