Funerals, Grief


Last night I called Pure Luck and said, "When I die, if I die first, promise me you won't leave until they've shoveled me in."

That might be a strange conversation starter for some people, but we've talked a lot about dying and what sort of arrangements people would prefer. I'd rather talk about it now then wait and never get around to it. My parents spoke secretly to one another just before my mother died, although I know she had tried to get my dad to talk about it sooner, and I was never entirely sure she went along with the plans he made in the end, for the end. He went along with her desire to be cremated, but his choice for where they would be interred–well, let's just say she came to me in a dream and told me that was not what she expected.

It was an odd and vivid dream, and it came not long after my father died. It took place in my parents' house, and my mother met me at the foot of the stairs to show me a catalog of headstones. She showed me something in a sort of rose-colored marble, with a lamb etched into the stone. I can't imagine that, living, this sort of thing would have been her taste. She was cremated because she thought caskets and coffins were wasteful! She also didn't like the thought of people looking at her, laid out, and as I said before, my father agreed to all that, both her frugality and her desire for privacy. In the dream, I said, "No, Mom, you and dad are both going to the Columbarium at the University of Wahoos."

And she looked at me, puzzled. "That's not what we agreed to do," she said.

Maybe these things don't really matter. What difference does it make, really? We interred them at the UWahoo Columbarium for Super Special Alumni instead of in the plots in the cemetery in Jane Austen's Village that my Uncle Haller and Aunt Mabel didn't use, since they had moved away. Either way, their bodies are gone, and I'm nowhere near either place.

That interment on a winter day in December of 1997, when my mother's urn left its interim location to be taken with my father's to a vault, ended a process of more than four years. We stood with family members next to the wall of vaults. My children were so young! I stayed the night before at a Residence Inn, where I got complaints about the noise they made running from one room to the other. Exhausted from travel, a flight and a long car ride, I felt relieved that they were having fun and wearing themselves out playing. The next morning at breakfast I looked around and wondered if the complainer would see what charming children they were, really, and feel guilty.

I think I thought that. I don't really know. The return to the town where #1 Son was born, to a place I lived as a newlywed with The Father of My Children, the drive in past the mall and the grocery store and the shopping center of that completely separate time in my life ten years and more earlier upset my equilibrium.

The things we remember are funny. We used to write "Krogering" in the checkbook when we went to the grocery store, because at Christmas a musical advertisement encouraged us, "Let's go Kroger-ing!"

We used to write checks at the grocery store, twenty-two years ago, before debit cards and cash back and PIN numbers.

And while there are some things we don't necessarily grieve, they mark for us the passing of time.

My parents died when I was still in my 30s, young but not outrageously so for losing parents. I hope my children have more time with me.

Yesterday I celebrated the life of a woman whose son-in-law had known her for 56 years, whose daughter at 74 had to say goodbye to Mother.

It's not right to rush that.

On the phone yesterday, I said, "They make you leave too quickly. They don't dig the graves anymore. They want you to go so they can bring in the backhoe."

Pure Luck said, "I just want you to put me in a burlap sack and drop me in the ground."

(I've heard variations on this before.)

I answered, "There would still be a backhoe. And I don't want to be rushed away. I want to see it through. Will you promise to do that for me if I promise to do it for you?"

"Sure," he said. "Although I've been considering donating my body to science."

14 thoughts on “Graveside”

  1. When my Aunt Marian died this winter I had to decide whether or not to have a graveside committal…something I’d had for my mother, and appreciated at the time (after an extended wait to get her ashes back, and then to schedule the infamous backhoe). As much of a believer in ritual as I am, I found myself saying “no” to that final one; maybe the real saying goodbye for me was in the experience of sitting with my aunt during the final hours of her life, or maybe after sitting at the funeral home for hours for a total of three visitors I felt (and could hear my aunt say), “Enough already.”

  2. That’s one of the things that seeing other’s funerals, allows you to contemplate your’s. My guess is that you get that in spades.
    I was at a funeral this week with an open casket where the family had to say good-bye as they closed the casket in front of 500 people. That is never happening to my babies. It killed me to see those kids trying to hold it together in that over-crowded room.
    I’m constantly giving my kids instructions. I want a Viking funeral on a remote lake, but my guess is that they’ll have to settle for cremation and spreading the ashes in that lake instead.

  3. My mother-in-law has stated in writing that after her death, her dogs are to be euthanized, cremated, and their ashes buried with hers. She is quite serious. This disturbs the Scientist and me, for many reasons. I don’t know what we will do.

  4. If he donates his body to science, you will still eventually get the ashes.
    When I was in med school and at the med schools here is New Orleans, there is a special religious service at the end of Gross Anatomy to honor and remember the people whose bodies we dissected. Some family members attended.

  5. With my mother entering what I believe will be her final trials, what you write is important to me. She wants nothing to do with God at her funeral, as she believes that God had nothing to do with her throughout her life. But I’m the one who has agreed to deliver the homily (what WAS I thinking?). She wants to give her body to “science”, whatever that means. I am reassured by Sherry’s comments.
    Taciturn and I agree on our arrangements so that helps. Only Son will be the one who ultimately has control if we are in our dotage or die together. He know our wishes–although I’m unsure if he agrees. It is one of those cases where we’ll see.

  6. I have a mental pic of you (le petite you) doing ANYTHING with a burlap sack the size of Pure Luck! You and six of your biggest friends!
    Down here the grave is ready and you have to fight to be allowed to stay while the casket is lowered…When my aunt died I spoke for the family (!) and said we did NOT want to go off and leave her casket sitting there. No one disagreed with me (maybe they were in shock), but I do think they were quite surprised to see the lowering actually happen. Her priest had recommended it and did a wonderful job of speaking about its importance at the time.

  7. It’s nice to hear that some parents view it as a normal part of life. My parents and my husband’s wont talk about it…even with an awful diagnosis looming over, death seems to be the ultimate sense of loss of control…it which will not be named. It is sad because after doing CPE, I realize the richness of people’s lives and stories when the certainly of their finitude sinks into their bones. hmmmmmmmm

  8. I think it’s so necessary to have these conversations. I’ve left my wishes filed with my church so that I get the service I want with the hymns I want as well. I plan on cremation as well. I am the only Episcopalian in my family, so though the service will be unfamiliar for my family, I’ll know that I got my proper send off. :c)

  9. One of the ministries provided by our church’s Memorial Gifts team is a “Preparing to Die” booklet that is made available to all who wish one. In this booklet, you can make your wishes known — people you want contacted, burial instructions, hymn suggestions, scripture suggestions, insurance info, next of kin info, etc. etc. While some think this is morbid, many of us have filled one out — some folks even file a copy of it with the church office!

  10. I have always said that if they don’t bury me for love, they’ll do it because of the stink. However, everybody (I hope) knows that if they don’t sing “Jesus is Lord, creation’s voice proclaims it” at my funeral, I will come back and HAUNT them! Other than that, I don’t care!

  11. I remember Mom & dad bought a plot they described as being like bunk beds. Mom was buried on the bottom, with room for Dad when his time came. By then he wanted to be cremated. We had to argue with the funeral home and cemetery, but they finally agreed to inter Dad’s ashes in that top bunk. (Seeing three young mourners, they tried convincing us they had to place a smaller vault for the ashes next to the bunk beds until I pointed out the obvious – a small container of ashes should fit in a casket-sized vault.)
    Our aunt donated her body to science; she was a polio survivor who had remarkable recovery and hoped her body might offer clues into how and why she recovered in case they could learn something to help others. She didn’t want a funeral, so my cousin invited close friends and family to a Chinese restaurant his mom loved, and we played a trivia challenge based on her life.
    Me? I’ve told everyone I want to be cremated, but don’t want my ashes scattered. The can bury the ashes or stick them in the back of a closet, just don’t throw me to the winds.

  12. Sadly, the conversation that ensued is lost to us because I moved from Blogger to Typepad a few months later, and while I brought my posts along, I could not save the comments.

  13. Oh, we were all adults at the time Dad died, just still young adults.
    Some funny things did happen at the funeral home – Dad would have approved since he was all about laughing at life’s absurdities. A different aunt went with us to the funeral home. She has a somewhat upper-crusty Martha Stewart-y quality. We had to meet the guy at their new “north branch” but knew we wanted the service at their classy, downtown funeral home. So when the guy showed us the gathering room at the new place (unaware we’d sneaked in to take a peek and hated its cold modernity) my aunt did this hysterically abrupt “Oh,” and turned and left the room. We tried so hard not to laugh.
    Immediately after my snarky little crack about the small box of ashes and the casket-size vault, my sister asked the poor guy, “Theoretically speaking, if we were all cremated, too, how many of us could fit in there?” And when they started showing us the urns most were so gaudy I said, “Even Liberace wouldn’t be caught dead in these.” So the poor guy showed us the plain ones, one of which reminded me of a storage container I had, so I made some quip about Tupperware. Seriously, someone could make a good living designing tasteful urns.
    We may have lost our parents too young, but Dad sure left us with a legacy of humor. As I tell my niece and nephew (ages 4 and 5), our unofficial family motto is, “Goofy is good!”

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