August 29, 2014

Insights

This past christmas morning at our parents’ home, my sisters and I were relishing steamy mugs of hot coffee and chatting nonstop when our conversation was abruptly halted by our father summoning us to take a drive.

He and Mom had been looking to acquire some property in a gated, downtown area of our historic hometown of Savannah, Tenn. "You can go as you are," he said, nudging us along. "There will be a lot of people there with decorum, but they will not care. Everyone is dying to get in there."

This was the "dead giveaway." Our parents wanted our approval before buying cemetery lots overlooking the Tennessee River. Dad, being a genealogy enthusiast, could never pass a cemetery when we were children without making this passé comment. He also created a family ritual of scanning the newspaper’s obituaries each morning. As he read aloud the deceased, we would rush to the telephone book and cross their names from our paper-thin directory.

Needless to say, I have had a long-running fascination with where my tangible, and hopefully very old, body would be laid to rest. No, I am not a taphophile (a person with non-morbid love of funerals, graves and cemeteries), but as a devoted Christian, I’ve spent my life following the Bible’s teaching: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die."

Being true Southerners from a small town, we were raised with funerals as social occasions complete with pomp and circumstance. My great-uncle was a mortician who often drove a hearse to my grandparents’ house for lunch. He always had the latest news about who had expired and where, much to the chagrin of my grandfather.

I learned that to show respect requires attending the viewing, the service and the interment; hand-delivering beautiful food on a silver platter—and overtly discussing whether the embalmer did a good job, who attended the services and, more importantly, who did not. It is a time when long-lost cousins and friends appear, not only to extend their sympathy but to enjoy the reunion it affords them. They gather in small groups, reminiscing and laughing with those whom they have not seen in years.

Dealing with death is more difficult when it is unexpected. Many of our friends have recently been taken from this earth at too young an age. When one friend’s husband died, he left her with three small boys, reminding us all that every day of life is a gift. So stunned by this loss, several of her friends—a Catholic, an Episcopalian and I, a Baptist—helped organize his Jewish funeral, with the assistance of Judaism for Dummies, while she grasped the unknown and gathered her thoughts on how to say goodbye to such an extraordinary man.

Many people feel so devastated and overwhelmed at a time of death that they assume they should leave all planning to the funeral director. But being actively involved in funeral planning can be very therapeutic, and your family will not have to grieve over the expense later.

After our adventure with Dad, my sisters and I found ourselves planning our own funerals. Some may say this is a morbid thing to do, but I think we have accepted the fact that we will all reach the end of our journey one way or another.

My family’s decisions will be easier with my passing because I have planned most details about my "celebration of life" funeral. Birthdays and deaths are to be celebrated, not mourned. There will not be a viewing (just in case the embalmer is having a bad makeup and hair day). And I want to be comfortably ensconced in a crypt aboveground at my parents’ newly acquired real estate, a place reminiscent of the historic Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires where tombstones are a work of timeless old world art.

But even planning can run into a glitch or two. According to my sons, I should get with the global trend. They think my plan is completely over-the-top and ecologically incorrect. Their suggestion: an eco-friendly burial with plain, glued wood or a cardboard box. A cardboard box? So much for thinking the kids would opt for the funeral home’s emotional, power-sell of "burial shoes" more expensive than my Jimmy Choos!

"I was ahead of the times with eco-friendly funerals," I informed my eco-conscious sons, recalling the plethora of family pets buried through the years under the apple tree on the lawn. "We share the planet, and we should respect it," our 10-year-old son exclaimed while meticulously separating plastic and paper in our recycling bin. Then our 13-year-old emphatically chimed in, "The body should disintegrate back into the earth, your soul is in heaven—and you would be compost at its best, Mom!" A soliloquy or a compliment?

My husband wants to be cremated and his ashes scattered over the Sea of Abaco where we fell in love. Very sweet—and pragmatic, as the number of cremations increases every year due to cost and the ease of transporting loved ones. However, even that doesn’t always work out quite as planned. One notable Neapolitan left her loved one’s urn in a hotel dresser in New Zealand. His return travels were shockingly complex! Another friend put it into perspective for his wife: "Just divide my remains into Ziploc bags, and scatter as you desire in your travels. I will be airport security-approved."

The number of our friends choosing to plan their own funerals has dramatically increased. This trend, and its imposition on the traditional funeral industry, can be credited to aging baby boomers known for their desire to control all aspects of their life—and afterlife—including obits noting absolutely every possible life accomplishment.

What it all comes down to is the most basic knowledge inscribed on the human heart: Life does not end at death. To be human is to be aware of the soul. These earthly decisions, when planned, are simply a convenience for your family. Even in the somber setting of a funeral, the realms of family and friendship will prevail.

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