Frida Berrigan’s Reflection at the Berrigan Tree, A White Pine for Peace and Perseverance
When my father was dying twenty years ago, we asked him what he wanted on his tombstone. He said, only half in jest, “‘I Tried,” I want it to say I Tried.”
My mom overruled him. She thought it was glib and tongue in cheek. Phil’s tombstone, tucked into a grove of cedar trees in Baltimore, reads: “Love One Another.” It is a lovely tribute, but I think “I Tried” is a fitting epitaph for my tireless father, who exited prison for the last time less than a year before he died, and spent that last year imploring the rest of us not to get tired, not to give up.
His brother Dan didn’t get what he wanted either. Dan , who died in 2016, joked with his friends that he wanted “It Was Never Dull. Thank God,” etched into his marble slab. The Jesuits had other ideas.
Dan’s tombstone is in a precise and martial line alongside fellow members of the New York Province on a hillside at the Jesuit cemetery in Auriesville, New York. The thin stone bears his name, and a stark list of dates: Born May 9, 1921; Entered August 14 1939; Died April 30, 2016.
I find comfort in these stones. They are places to visit, physically and in my mind. Tombstones are places to return to, to remember our beloveds. They are places where we can water the grass with our tears, pour out our hearts to these insensate stones, and bring our wedding bouquets to carpet the graves.
The thought occurs to me that tombstones exist to take the guesswork out of death, the end is not ineffable or mysterious. It is stark: stone, dirt and grass or (these days, more often the fire and ash of cremation). But either way, it is right here, waiting.
Living, however, living remains the real mystery. And for that, trees are better examples of how we are to live.
Grounded, reaching, beautiful, ever changing, in transparent and reciprocal relationships of mutual need and benefit with every other living creature around us from the massive squirrel and hawk to the microscopic mycelium and lichen.
So, I am honored to stand with this community around the Berrigan memorial tree and etch it (in my imagination) with my dad and uncle’s preferred epitaphs. I tried and it was never dull, Amen.