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Archive for Sunday, October 28, 2001

October 28, 2001

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All that Michael's father would ever say, whenever he had anything at all to say about it, was, "When I'm dead, just cremate me."

Michael had heard this as a boy fishing with his father, and he heard it when his Uncle Larry died, driving his sobbing father in the funeral procession; and he heard it again as a man after his father had the first of several heart attacks. He heard it more and more, as his father's life seemed to be constricting with age and infirmity and the inevitable. "When I'm dead, just cremate me."

Over the years Michael had figured out that the operative word in the directive was not "cremate," but "just." His father did not so much want his body burned as he didn't want to be a bother to his son. He didn't want to "cost" him anything emotionally or financially.

Like many Americans, Michael's father mistook a quick disposition of the corpse for an easier, more convenient grief, as if getting rid of the body meant getting rid of the pain, as if death need not be dealt with if the dead quickly disappeared.

And, like many Americans, Michael's father thought cremation was an alternative to "all that funeral bother" the roses and limousines and a three-day wake, a casket with all the bells and whistles, a preacher and music.

"Just throw a big party, Mike. I want everyone to have a good time, drinks on me. None of that weeping and carrying on," he'd say.

Years ago, his father, responding to the "You-don't-want-to-be-a-burden-to-your-children-do-you?" sales pitch from a telemarketer selling cemetery plots, had paid for all of his arrangements in advance the box, the burning and the urn.

"It's all taken care of, Mike," his father had said. "You won't have to do a thing."

Michael, being a loving son, would never argue. And, anyway, he didn't like to think about his father being dead.

He would cross that bridge when he came to it.

When he came to it that Sunday evening last October when he found his father slumped in the wing-back chair, the Weather Channel on the TV, the Sunday paper on the coffee table, the lights from passing cars outside mixing in the room's half-light he didn't have a clue. He had planned for the fact but not the feeling: the overwhelming helplessness, the vexing sense that he should do something.

But here he was, his father dead at 75, and Michael had nothing to do.

Thinking ahead

Every day, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, 6,300 Americans die. The families of the dead face the ever-widening options in caskets or services or music or urns. Most of the dead are buried, some are entombed, one in four are cremated. The average funeral costs nearly $5,000. Some cost five times that much, others one-fifth.

And there seems, of late, across North America, a greater pressure to "pre-arrange" it all on the hopeful notion that to pre-plan the funeral is to pre-grieve the grief. Funerals have been pre-planned since the pyramids and pre-paid since folks stuffed money into mattresses or put aside a little something against the inevitable day. But the pre-selling of funerals the hard-sell, junk-mail, telemarketed, door-to-door, bargain-in-a-briefcase brand of mortuary sales common to the current marketplace is something new. It is driven less by consumer interest than by the sales quotas and commissions of the large mortuary and insurance companies that want to secure the future market share of aging baby boomers.

But while the fashions in funerals are various and changing, and the social, ethnic and religious contexts ever in flux, the fundamental obligations remain. At their best, funerals provide a forum for the healthy expression of grief and faith, family history and forgiveness, witness and remembrance.

Ever since the first Neanderthal widow buried her mate, funerals have served the living by seeing off the dead. Every culture known to humankind has devised rituals and ceremonies to deal with the troubling facts of mortality: that grief is the tax paid on attachments; that love hurts; that a death in the family, like a birth, must be observed. Funerals define and affirm the changed status of the dead and the survivors. The deceased and the bereaved are brought, by these last rites of passage, to the brink of whatever new reality the society assigns: heaven, oblivion, bereavement or release.

Personalizing the service

In the end, Michael decided the value of a funeral was not in how much it cost. It was not about the boxes or the bargains or the insurance. His father's death belonged not only to his father, but to him and to his children and to his father's friends and neighbors those who his father had worked with, lived with, grown up with and grown old with. And he figured that as much as he had to live with the decisions, he would make some.

He figured his father would understand.

In a sense he had to re-invent the funeral, borrowing a little something from the various traditions and memories. The priest came to say the old prayers, which had their comforts, though his father had grown distant from the church. The U.S. Army sent soldiers to fold the flag and play taps. Though it was years since his dad had marched off to war, their presence was important to Michael.

And he had his father laid out because he figured seeing was believing, hard as it was, and because a funeral without his father's body there made no more sense to him than a baptism without the baby or a wedding without the bride. When he looked at his father there, so still, in his blue sport coat and button-down plaid shirt, with his fly rod tucked in beside him and the grandchildren's pictures, the range of feelings was breathtaking from sadness to thanksgiving and everywhere in between.

And then he had his father's body cremated, not because it was less bother but because it was what he asked for. He took some of the ashes to the river where they'd fished together and scattered them. He took some to the grave where his father's people were, back in Ohio, and buried them there. He put some in an urn and gave it to his father's woman friend.

And he kept some of the ashes in his father's tackle box against the day, somewhere in the future, when after his mother died, he'd bury some of his father's ashes with her in a grave over which he would put a stone that might read: "Mother & Father Together Again."

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