Death. Dying. Funerals. It happens to everyone but very few are comfortable talking about it.
(Trigger Warning: Death, Suicide, Cancer, Death of a Child)
I think it becomes more comfortable as you get older, not because you’re getting closer to the inevitable but you’ve had more experience with it. My great-Grandmother and great Uncle both passed in the early 70’s and I was young and mostly oblivious. I don’t remember taking issue with it or having a problem with it. Infact I remember nothing about it at all. Odd. I remember both of them, but not their deaths.
My Mom’s mom (aka the good Grandma) passed away in 1980 (I was 13). Freaked me out. She had a long battle with cancer that we mostly didn’t witness due to living out of state. We made a trip back to see her for the last Christmas and then she passed 2-1/2 months later. I only got to go with my Mom because she had recently had surgery and couldn’t travel well by herself and the airline ran a special allowing kids to fly free with a paid adult.
The rituals of funerals were overwhelming and confusing, only to be made worse with my oddball family. Someone greeted me at the funeral home telling me they were sorry for my loss then in a sullen gesture with both hands out offered me something to take telling me “give this to you mother with my sympathies”. I felt like I was involved in some deep family ritual that no one warned me about. Being raised Catholic, you learn that there are appropriate and proper responses to everything and I was at a complete loss at what I was supposed to say. Only to look down and see myself holding… a pair of socks? As it turns out, that was my cousin (known to be a bit of a drama queen) and my mom had left the socks at her house on the last visit back East. Sheesh.
I was adamant about not wanting to see my grandmother in the casket, preferring to remember her living… which my mom was completely supportive of …. and along comes a cousin who decides that my decision is disrespectful and takes it upon himself to try and (literally) drag me into the room with the casket. I should mention I was a tomboy, strong and always ready for a fight. No problem for fighting off the rogue cousin. Well, until I broke free and my split second of victory was shattered by winding up in the room next door seeing some complete stranger in a casket. Well, it was creepy, but at least it wasn’t Grandma.
Needless to say there’s a reason that most family functions on that side of the family… weddings, funerals, etc have designated bouncers. Too many, um, “forceful” opinions. We were later kicked out of the funeral home because someone brought coffee and donuts and apparently that’s against health regulations in Brooklyn (or was at the time at least).
It wasn’t all bad though, we got our much needed comic relief at the cemetery. We were approaching the gravesite when my very superstitious great-Aunt began saying how she hated walking through civilian cemeteries because she always felt like she was stepping on someone. Military cemeteries have those nice uniform rows and civilian cemeteries are every which way. We left the graveside only for the same great-Aunt to step into a rabbit hole and begin SHRIEKING “Help! They’re pulling me in!!!” My great Uncle was frantically trying to help her while we were all laughing uncontrollably. To date this is still one of the funniest memories I have.
Next came the dad of my best friend and (unofficially adopted) family when I was 20. I focused on her, her mom, brothers and sisters and kept my eyes away from the front as much as possible. I was working really hard at being a grown up although I wasn’t feeling rather successful at it.
It wasn’t until nine years later when my own father was diagnosed with cancer that the subject of death and dying now became a major point of discussion.
My dad had mesothelioma, a fast growing tumor that usually is found on the lower lobe of the lung, but his was wedged between his heart and lungs. By the time they finally found it, it had rooted into his heart and nothing could be done. He was sent home and hospice was contacted.
I don’t know why, but I became almost obsessed with knowing what he wanted and paranoid that we wouldn’t do the right thing. I’m still really glad I asked because we all would have gotten it wrong. Rather than the family plot back in New York City, he opted for cremation. Pop had left the church years before (only attended if his parents were in town, to minimize drama) but in light of his diagnosis he wanted a priest and I was the one given the task.
Father Dave was an amazing man. We had quite a few long conversations. It was thanks to Father Dave that I finally felt like a grown up, confessing that I was not Catholic despite my upbringing and later lighting up a cigarette (due to the length of the conversation and stress of it all – don’t worry, I quit 15 years ago). It was rather profound for me; no lightning strike and I didn’t burst into flame. And then the oddest thing happened. Father Dave thanked me. I was so confused. What could he possibly have to thank me for? He said it was my honesty. He appreciated that I didn’t put on a show for him, I didn’t pretend to be of the faith because I thought it was what he would want to hear. He also appreciated that I was willing to ask his opinions as another person rather than demanding answers and challenging his position and profession.
My daughter has always been the type of person that doesn’t like surprises and deals exceptionally well with things if she’s informed along the way. She was very precocious 4-year old at the time. I explained to her what was going on, detailing that some cancer is like rust (her other grandfather died of lung cancer when she was 2) and that other cancers are like water balloons that just keep getting bigger. It made perfect sense to her and infact later she took it upon herself to explain it to her great Grandmother who was suffering more from denial than dementia at that point.
Kid was out playing when it was determined that Pop had slipped into a coma and the end was near. I explained that it was “time” and that he would be leaving us soon. She grabbed the chunky book that she always made him read to her and climbed in the hospital bed with him. She proceeded to “read” the book and then sang a song to him. Finally she gave him a kiss and then let him know that she had to go because it was bedtime.
Pop passed in the middle of the night and the funeral home came to pick up his body. Frankly I always thought they kept bankers hours till then. The next morning I met my daughter in her bedroom so we could talk and discuss what she would be seeing (or rather not seeing) since he was gone. She informed me that she already knew that he was gone. When I asked how she knew she told me that he had come up to see her before he left. Kid when on to say that he had woken her up, let her know that he was leaving, told her to be good and that he’d see her later and that he loved her, then tucked her in and told her to go back to sleep. I still get overwhelmed just thinking about that conversation 19 years later.
Father Dave had recommended the funeral home, noting that a lot of people complained that it looked more like an antique store rather than a funeral home. Perfect choice. I hate funeral homes. On the day of the viewing, we were getting ready to leave the house when my daughter told me she had to get something and ran up to the bedroom returning with the same chunky book that she had read to him just a few nights before. When I asked about it, she told me that she wanted to give it to him now since he wouldn’t be around for his birthday and she wouldn’t be able to give him a present then.
I learned a lot watching her. No fear, just acceptance. It was amazing to see someone, anyone, deal with this so matter of factly. Not cold like a doctor, but just from a “this is okay, it happens” standpoint. At the funeral home she greeted visitors at the door, showed them to the guest book and then walked them to the casket and left them here. No one instructed her to and no one had to tell her to give them time to themselves once they got to the casket. Somehow she just knew what to do.
Because of my dad, death became a topic of conversation for all of us. Infact Kid informed me one day that she would prefer to have me “creamerated” so that if I died before she had kids then she could keep me around to meet them, she would do something with my ashes later “when she was done with me”. Pretty deep for a 4 year old I thought. When preschool started that fall she was asked to draw her family, we had to explain the box (of ashes) to her teacher who was quite confused.
A few short years later we had a rough couple of months. From January to May there were 13 funerals between friends and family. The hardest were in the first month. My father’s mother who had been suffering from severe dementia passed from a ruptured aneurism, my Grandfather was completely lost. They had been married 63 years and retired for the last 20, then in the last five years due to the dementia he was her world and she his. My sister stayed with him to help him out and kept my daughter with her to give him another focus.
Mom & I came back to Columbus to return to work, only to get a call the following morning that a friend’s 8 month old baby had passed the night before. Meningococcal meningitis. It usually hits college aged kids, but it got her instead. From the time she was symptomatic to the time she passed it was 20 minutes. Losing a baby… anyones baby, rocks your world. Especially if you have kids. All I could do was think of all the times my daughter had been sick. It was also gut wrenching to watch the young single mother with her heart and purpose ripped from her as she sat next to the casket.
Two weeks later, the world as I knew it ended. My best friend (and ex-fiancee) committed suicide. I’m still reeling from this one all these years later. There are no answers. I suffered a nervous breakdown from the two events back to back. To make matters worse, due to a backlog at the coroner’s office and the required autopsy due to the nature of his death, there was a memorial service held in his honor but “he” was not in attendance. There was no funeral. To this day I can’t picture Michael this way. I used to have dreams that he would call me and tell me that he joined the witness protection program. I guess Hollywood and my subconscious found a way to rationalize what I could not.
Mom passed at home like Pop did, with hospice care in 2002. We only had a one day viewing before her cremation. My daughter, my sister, brother-in-law and I, were all much too drained emotionally to do much else. Others felt cheated (?) if you will, that there wasn’t more time to visit and say good bye. Something we had not considered because we were there through it all.
Grandpa went downhill rather quickly after Mom died. He’d buried his parents, his baby brother, countless friends, his son and now his daughter-in-law. The only ones left were his two granddaughters and his great granddaughter and he wasn’t sticking around for that. It was agonizing for all involved to watch him as he deteriorated. Of all the death “experience” we’d had, none of it was from old age. To see him in a constant state of mourning and feeling punished by God, reasoning why else could he have outlived all these people only to linger and watch? He passed a week before his 97th birthday. This now left me as the oldest of the family at the age of 37.
What I have realized from all of this is that funerals are for the living. They help us process what has happened and accept the transition that this person has made from life to death. It’s important for us to see this in some manner. In as much as I didn’t want to see my Grandmother in her casket all those years ago, we still had the funeral, the entire family mourning and the cemetery. The pieces were together.
While it’s noble to say that when you die you don’t want a funeral, please consider that others need it or some form of one to help them process what has happened and deal with their loss.
Here’s where my conversation takes a little bit of a left turn if you will. When my father’s mother passed in January 1997, it was too cold for the plot to be prepared in a timely manner due to the ground being frozen. We had a second smaller service in the cemetery chapel rather than at the graveside. Before leaving I expressed my wishes to go to the gravesite anyway. It’s a family plot, my great Grandparents and great Aunt and Uncle are all buried there. I was also trying to do a bit of family genealogy and there was a discrepancy regarding my great Grandmother’s date of birth. I was hoping that I would find the date I was looking for on the headstone.
The headstone at that site is one larger piece of marble with the last name on it, then the first names and dates are on a second base slab below it. As I mentioned, the gravesite was not ready for burial, but it was dug and there were large boards covering it. I visited for a few minutes, realizing that I hadn’t been there since the last time it had been opened in 1971. The board that was laid across the plot was blocking the information on the bottom of the stone and I attempted to move it just a couple of inches so I could see the dates. Instead, the board fell in the hole, everyone started yelling because they thought I fell in and I scared myself and screamed anticipating to see a similar scene to the pool scene in Poltergeist (the one with the pool). Instead, what I saw were caskets that looked “showroom new” 26 years after burial. How is that possible?
Medgar Evers, the famous civil rights activist, was assassinated in 1963. The person responsible for his death wasn’t finally convicted until 1994. As part of the pretrial process, Evers’ body was exhumed to gather evidence. His son was told to leave the room, as no loved one should see remains like that, but was soon invited back in. It looked as though his father had only been recently buried with the casket and his body intact, not at all looking as it “should have” having being buried for 31 years.
It’s now 2014. You can’t go a week without the term “green” or the prefix “eco” landing somewhere in your life.. whether you choose to pursue it or not. And all I can think of is those caskets. How long will they sit there “showroom new”? I’ve read about how embalming fluids are toxic in the ground… although you’ve got to get through the casket now don’t you? I’ve heard and read about how cremation isn’t very “earth friendly” because of the energy used and what is emitted into the atmosphere.
Population on this planet has literally doubled in the course of my lifetime, which means that there are more people dying. Where are we putting them? Have you ever seen a new cemetery open for business? I haven’t. I know that more are building and entombing above ground. My grandfather once told me (in reference to the family plot) that each plot should “hold” 3 people, that they bury at 3, 6 & 9 feet and then can add to it every 25 years to allow for decomposition. Well that’s obviously not the case with what I’ve witnessed first hand.
Frankly I don’t think we were supposed to go past the pine boxes, burial shrouds and pyres of our ancestors. While I don’t pretend to know what the answer is I do think we need to be looking for a solution before it becomes a huge problem.
I did see this video the other day which is what prompted this post (along with another conversation with my daughter).
I think its a very innovative step towards a solution for a growing problem that no one is talking about… yet. I hope it prompts others to consider the issues being faced and those that will come eventually and it challenges them to work on other solutions as well.
We need to have these conversations with our families, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable. It’s part of life, it’s part of the process of preparation. Not just for planning one’s own funeral, but for helping them in dealing with our eventual death.
I considered my parents cancer to be somewhat of a blessing in that we had time to begin the process together. I could help them be comfortable with their own upcoming death and they could help me begin the grieving process.
While we can never be fully prepared and the loss is always felt, having time to discuss things and wrap your brain around it does seem to lessen the overwhelmingness somewhat. From where I sit, it seems that those who suffer a sudden loss have so much more to deal with and process and sometimes never quite work their way through it. Having dealt with both, I’d much rather deal with illness rather than something sudden and unexpected.
As for me, my plans are simple. After my loved ones get to see me in my new state, I will be cremated. My ashes will be divided between my daughter and all my besties. They can all deal with the transition and say good bye as they see fit. One is already planning on planting me with a tree. I originally heard about Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) doing this with his dad and I absolutely love the idea. As a tree I will be able to breathe well again, continue to live in a new form and continue to add to the quality of life of others as well. I did some looking around and found this awesome biodegradable urn from Eternitrees.
Of course knowing my love of irony and crafts (along with one bestie in particular), someone could wind up making me into an ashtray… and that’s okay too. It’s about their closure, not mine.