Every New Year’s Day I visit the cemetery at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York, where Dan’s ashes are buried. It’s a perfect way to start the year.
The cemetery is small, about two-dozen wooden markers in a grove of pines that soar to the sky—utterly beautiful and completely peaceful. How happy I was to discover it when I was planning Dan’s funeral—the most wonderful place I had been in months. You can hear, in the distance, the sound of traffic on Route 28, and that’s perfect too; Buddhists are very much part of this world.
This year I brought Lulu, our basenji; she’s a little distracting, but she needed an excursion, Dan brought our dogs everywhere with him, and Lulu proved good company.
First we greeted Dan. Some new clear shellac-type substance had been applied to the top of his wooden marker. “I think you were splitting a little up at the top here, sweetie,” I said, giving the marker a pat. Usually I find it hard to talk to Dan because I figure he knows what I’m thinking, but I like Lulu to hear my voice.
I admired, as always, the letters, hand-printed in bold black ink, on his marker: his birth date, July 11, with all its straight lines, his death date, August 28, with the roundness of the g and the 2 and the 8. And I thanked someone, up there or down here, that the calligrapher planned the letters D A N I E L Z I N K U S to fit perfectly across the narrow marker, and likewise the dates below them, not running short of space and crushing the year at the edge, as happened on another marker.
We made a circuit of the cemetery, Lulu sniffing, me impressed again at how young these deceased tend to be. Yes, there are some elders, but so many have birthdates much more recent than Dan’s. I wonder about this, if Buddhism in general and this cemetery in particular appeal to a younger person.
We came upon only one 2011 funeral, a woman in her early 60s, and I greeted her. The large flat stone that covers her urn in the ground was empty, which is unusual, so I arranged three small pinecones on it in a way I hoped she would find attractive. You don’t bring flowers to a Buddhist cemetery, but stones, or, here, pinecones, pine twigs, all sorts of beautiful natural things.
I stopped by the marker for Matt, our neighbor from Snydertown Road in Claverack. He attended Dan’s funeral here and was so impressed by it that when he died a few years later his wife asked that he be buried here. She only told me afterward; they’re Scots, a quiet, private couple, and I imagine the Buddhists won over by her complete lack of guile.
This New Year’s Day I had something specific to ask Dan: “My horoscope today says ‘A short trip that ends in time spent with someone you respect will help you get a better handle on where you should put your time and effort over the next 12 months.’”
Dan would begin by telling me not to waste time reading newspaper horoscopes, “but really, sweetie, if you have any ideas, let me know.”
I don’t stay long. When I find myself thinking about his illness, not his life, I remind myself that if I have to leave him, this is so much better a place than the hospital, where for all those days, almost ninety of them, I left him. He loved the woods, he loved the world beyond the woods, he loved the Buddhists. With luck and love I found him this place.
Happy New Year, Dan.