Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Funeral in 2004

I have attended a lot of funerals in my lifetime, which has not been nearly as long as should warrant that statement. But I tend to see that fact more as the result of all the people I have known whose lives have touched mine. Each funeral is double-edged. There is grief in the loss of a loved one and simultaneous gratitude for the friendship that created the grief.
My first experience with attending to the details of the dead came with my Grandparents, who died three years apart. I admit that the detail-planning was a lot to take in amidst the thickness of the grief. When my Grandma died I was more of a spectator, learning the process of death for the first time. With my Grandpa, I was more invested.
My Grandpa died in the hospital at 9:03 at night. The nurses told us to take all the time we needed, and asked who we wanted them to call. My mom gave them the name of the funeral home we were using. When we left, my Grandpa’s body remained at the hospital for the Funeral Director to pick up. My Grandpa and my mom had decided to use the same funeral home as we had used for my Grandma but other than that, little arrangements had been made ahead of time.
My Grandpa had been fighting his cancer. He thought he was winning. But when the doctor told him that the treatments weren’t working, and he was looking at weeks, not months, my Grandpa slipped into unconsciousness that same night. I will always believe it was a choice he made to be done. To stop fighting. He was in a lot of pain. By the next evening, surrounded by loved ones, he was gone. He never regained consciousness.
When we went to meet with the Funeral Director the next morning, he was kind, walking through the checklist of choices we needed to make and information he needed to retrieve. He took down the details for the obituary; names of living relatives, work history, local groups he belonged to, etc. He told us he would send the obituary into the local newspaper for printing.
When asked if we wanted to have a viewing, we said yes. The Funeral Director said that we’d have to have the embalming then, and added it to the sheet on his clipboard and we moved on. We walked into the show room and picked out a casket.
            When we picked out a casket for my Grandma, he said whichever one we wanted for her, and we picked one of Oak. It was pricey, but compared to the caskets in the showroom, not ridiculous. When we entered the same showroom for my Grandpa, money was an object. It’s something I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about the choices they’ve made for their own loved ones. Often finances have to come before what they would want to do for their loved one. Which speaks to the industry that death has become in our culture.
            For my Grandpa, we chose a Pine casket, which looked very much like every other wooden casket in the room. Not that any casket is less than another. All wood is sacred. And it only matters in the moment of purchasing it. No one is going to see it when it’s in the ground. It is kind of set up to make you feel like if-you-loved-them-more-you-would-show-it-by-picking-a-better-casket. It must be hard and overwhelming for those trying to make these choices from a place of extreme grief. We didn’t need the fancy linings or the fancy pillows, or the secret compartment in the casket for belongings and we were all in agreement on that. If you knew my Grandpa, he would have approved of the simple and classic choice we made.
Then we picked out a vault, which can be required when a body is embalmed in some states. I have also learned that some cemeteries will require the use of a vault whether the person is embalmed or not, and whether the state requires it or not. Using a vault assists with the ease of their ground maintenance, as vaults help keep the ground from shifting too much as the casket settles.
We planned the dates for the viewings with a simple service at the funeral home through the use of their retired minister. My Great-Grandparents were Roman Catholic but my Grandpa never claimed any religion as his own. What the funeral home could offer seemed the best option. The funeral home made arrangements with the cemetery for opening and closing the grave site for us, but only because we were using them for our service.
Then we waited until the viewings, sitting in quiet, sharing stories, cleaning to keep hands busy. We called family and friends and received them at my parent’s house. The viewings at the funeral home were a blur. Lots of reunions with people I hadn’t seen since childhood. It was an unfortunate circumstance and yet I thought my Grandpa, who enjoyed his alone time as much as he enjoyed socializing, would have approved at how much laughter filled that cold and somber room.
The morning of the service was a joke. I know the retired minister meant well, but he couldn’t remember my Grandpa’s name and he used the opportunity to throw every Bible story he had ever been fond of into his eulogy- and that is me being kind. I wish I had been a bit older. I wish I had anticipated the end was coming. I wish I could have stood up there and spoken to the awesomeness that my Grandpa had been made of. Still, the comical eulogy served as the source of much laughter during the afternoon.
We divvied up the flower arrangements, deciding what would go to the grave site. The plants we separated up for family to take home to grow and renew. It was touching to see the flowers come in from people we didn’t really know, whose lives my Grandpa had touched. The webs we weave in life are far larger than we can perceive.
It was a warm spring day, just after equinox in the cemetery. Standing graveside was the most natural part of the entire experience for me.  The sun was shining. Birds were singing. The ground sat open in wait. The strangest part of the morning was deciding who would ride in what vehicle with whom to get to the cemetery.
I don’t know how it is in large cities, but in my hometown we still ascribe to the funeral procession. The hearse takes the lead, with family cars behind it, and other cars behind them, safety lights flashing. It’s a slow crawl through red lights and stop signs. Life paused in breathes as we wound through town, picking back up in our wake.
Afterwards we gathered at a family member’s house for food and conversation. When my Grandma died, we gathered together in their house, filling the new void with friends and company. But with the second loss, we let someone else hold that part for us. I think it would have been too much, to see so many people populate a house whose future emptiness we were still coming to terms with. At the same time, I can see how it would have been healing, to bring life back into the house.
And then it was over. We stayed up late and talked. We shared stories and family secrets together at the kitchen table. A few days later my mom and I went back to his house. We walked through an emptiness that suddenly felt massive. The gravity of reality hit us, but now we had time.
We didn’t really know what Grandpa would have liked or would have wanted if he’d been able to choose, but we knew him well enough to make the best choices. And it prompted us to sit around the kitchen table and begin to discuss our own desires after our eventual deaths. It’s important to know what you want, what you don’t want, and what you don’t care about one way or the other. It’s important to share that with the friends and family that may be left to take care of those details. Both because it’s smart and because it’s kind.
What do you want done to best honor the temple that was your body? You might not care, and that’s all right. Don’t feed into the industrial machine death has become, simply because you think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Question everything. And then call around to your local funeral homes and see how close you can get to what you want. 


  1. Just some love and thanks for sharing, Sarah

  2. I want life to come from my death. I hope my family follows my wishes and donates my body. If anything can be used or recycled to make someone else's life better, please, give me to them. I don't care if they are young, old, or even from my country. I am no longer using it and it should be given to someone to have a few more days, months, or years with their loved ones. Maybe a medical student will perfect a surgical technique through the use of my remains? That is also a good use of a real body.

    Just gain knowledge, life, and love through my passing.


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