November 30, 2017
My mother announces that when she dies, she wants to be buried like the pharaohs. We talk over the phone and I imagine her sitting in what used to be my father’s green chair, surveying the frames and cabinets that crowd the walls, feet bouncing on the footstool, the black poodle perched alertly on her lap. I ask her why and she cackles back: “Because they get to take all their stuff with them!” She means, of course, that the ruling classes of Ancient Egypt buried themselves alongside their most prized possessions, rooms full of them sometimes, because these objects brought them pleasure and sustenance in the afterlife. My mother neither likes nor believes in immortality, yet she certainly doesn’t mind the idea of always remaining with the things she loves, the things that could fill a room. Or a storage unit. With a location on 135th Street and Riverside Drive, Manhattan Mini Storage is only a mile away from her apartment and “it would be a piece of cake,” she tells me, to move her cremains and other belongings into an eight-by-ten foot, climate-controlled cube. I wouldn’t even have to hire movers.
My mother says many things about her afterlife. At seventy-three, she’s at an age when long-standing intractability rubs up against a mind grown mercurial. First, she asks for her ashes to be laid alongside her parents’ within the low stone wall out back of the Episcopalian church in East Hampton. Next she tells me I’m to drop hers and my father’s ashes into the lake in the Adirondacks where we used to spend summers. “Which one?” I ask, since we stayed at two, Abanakee and Indian. “Oh, Indian Lake, of course,” she scoffs. “Abanakee is man-made!” Now her plan is for me to bury hers, my father’s, and the poodle’s ashes in the field next to her country house in Pennsylvania. “And where will I go?” I ask. “You don’t want to be with us in the country?” “Not really,” I say. “Well then, it looks like you’re out of luck!” And she laughs, the poodle yapping along in accompaniment, until the laugh sounds something like a roar, grown more and more phlegmy as she ages so that now it resembles one of her sister’s hoary outbursts. It’s a way, on some level, of masking the fact she’d rather not be laughing at all.
The Ancient Egyptians lavished such attention on death you could say that they lived to die. Death held such importance because it wasn’t exactly death; instead, the Egyptians saw it as a period of limbo and the afterworld a perilous journey, filled with spitting serpents and fiery lakes, four-horned bulls and monkeys that cut the heads off unwary travelers. At the journey’s end, the dead weighed their hearts against a feather. If the heart proved lighter, then the dead were reborn in another realm. If the heart proved heavier, a monster with the head of a crocodile, the torso of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus devoured the heart’s owner. All in all, a daunting schlep.
The most important event in a person’s life was to build one’s tomb. Wealthy Egyptians commissioned mastabas, monoliths built some thirty feet high from the mud of the Nile, sloping upward like a pyramid sliced off at its base. A mastaba, with its cache of false doors and hidden statues, served as a monumental storage unit: its burial chamber lay hidden underground, the tunnel down to it rocked up with rubble so that the body and its possessions—what was most vulnerable, most inviolable—stayed secret and safe.
THOMAS MIRA Y LOPEZ is from New York City. He earned an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona, and his work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School, among other publications. He currently lives in North Carolina, where he is the 2017–2018 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Excerpted from The Book of Resting Place