I haven’t been to a funeral home in close to 30 years, and I have never been to one as a customer or client. Yesterday the Wife called and said that she needed me to go along with her and her mother to discuss the arrangements for my father-in-law’s memorial service.
The two women we met at the funeral home looked like your average middle-aged suburban housewives who took up a career after the kids went off to college. Neither one of them wore black, and both seemed sincere when they expressed their condolences. The home itself had a single open space divided by a vinyl curtain that partitioned the room into two spaces. My wife commented that there were no windows in either space – something Da wouldn’t like – and one of the funeral directors noted “There aren’t many funeral homes with windows.”
I stood in the open space with rows of chairs neatly placed facing an empty area where the casket would usually rest. An audience facing a casket – as if the stiff were to rise and perform for the crowd, garnering laughs and applause. Da would not have liked that either, so the Wife immediately changed the seating arrangements.
One by one the details of the memorial ceremony were worked out as I stood and imagined the countless corpses that I been laid out in that empty space, the innumerable tears shed on the industrial grade low-pile carpet, boxes of Kleenex neatly placed on the small tables that were spaced along the walls. Da wasn’t a funeral home goer, but this ceremony had to conform to certain expectations, and one of those was that dead people are memorialized in funeral homes.
“These ceremonies are for the living,” the funeral director said. I commented that her job seemed more like a cruise director or wedding planner. “My job is to…” I almost got her to say it but she didn’t. She wanted to say:
Put the “fun” back into “funeral” but she artfully stopped herself from saying that although I knew deep down she wanted to. What followed was a more politically correct explanation of her duties and how much she enjoyed her job.
Well, I suppose it takes all types.
She led us into a room that I can best describe as a gift shop for the dead, a Hallmark Shop for the Goth and the Goth at heart. Laid out below recessed lighting were numerous caskets. Some were open to show their quilted lining. The funeral director explained that Serta – the same maker of beds for the living also made the thin mattresses that cradled the dead for eternity. However I don’t suppose that we will be seeing their “spokesheep” mention that in any of their commercials.
There were urns for the cremated, ranging from a grey slate pressboard box to cloisonné and marble vases. There were pieces of jewelry that held small amounts of cremains (an absolute must for Goths if you ask me, vials of blood being so cliche). There were the corners of coffins bolted to the walls to show their quality and workmanship. Prices ranged from the Sauder or O’Sullivan pressboard type for $175 to $6000 for polished steel hermetically sealed coffins that looked like you could launch them from a photon torpedo tube into space without scratching or denting them or damaging their contents. Pictures of families – all white because I suppose minorities don’t grieve for their dead or don’t die – hung next to the coffins, discussing the qualities of their construction and how they added to the memories of the deceased.
There was also a section of vault models. These models were the perfect size to lay your guinea pig to rest, and as one funeral director showed me, weighed a lot. There was a picture showing the step-by-step process of opening and closing a grave. She pointed out that these heavy concrete vaults were mandated by law to withstand the pressure of the heavy equipment necessary for digging graves today. It seems the heavy backhoes can collapse the coffins under them as they dig a nearby grave. This can cause “insurance problems” for the cemetery, and also cause subsidence and make mowing the grass more difficult.
I never realized that death could be so complicated.
As the Wife continued discussing the details, I examined the coffins, urns and vaults carefully. The expensive coffins were made with high-grade steel and had tough rubber linings around their openings. I noted to one of the funeral directors that if you placed an embalmed body in one of these caskets, sealed it shut, then placed it in one of the heavy concrete vaults and sealed it shut as well, the dead would not decay.
“That’s the point,” she said. “The loved ones don’t want to think of their beloved decaying. They want to think of them laying under ground as they were in life.”
So Grandma is pumped full of toxic chemicals, then sealed in a metal coffin which is then sealed in a concrete vault and buried 6 feet below the surface. This is supposed to make people feel better about their loss?
I found this to be plain creepy. I also couldn’t stop myself from imagining a zombie scenario. Come on. Am I the only one who imagines a “Dawn of the Dead” scene when visiting a cemetery?
Well let me assure you that given modern burial techniques, there is no way a zombie would make it out of the coffin, out of the vault, and through the dirt to the surface. This means that in such an event we would not have any zombies who died during the past 25 years – when the laws mandating heavy concrete vaults took effect.
I mentioned to one of the directors that thousands of years from now people would dig up our dead and think what we did was absolutely crazy in the same way we view the Egyptians for building elaborate tombs for their dead and placing heavily salted remains deep inside them.
I also realized that we were continuing a tradition that stretched backwards to the dawn of time, when our distant ancestors painted the bodies of the dead and laid mementos to rest with them. I wondered if it was possible that what set us truly apart from the animal kingdom, what made us unique from the other primates, was the way we treated our dead.
We learned that Da had been cremated on Sunday and one of the directors would be bringing his ashes to the funeral home today. It was a relief to learn that the body that had betrayed Da was no more than a coffee-can’s worth of grit and ash. Da was now completely free.
There would be no encapsulation of Da’s failed body away from the living. Instead his body had been turned into chemicals and gasses that now float in the wind and are now riding the Gulf Stream towards Europe. What had been part of his physical body would now rain upon the land of his ancestors in Ireland, helping keep that country green and beautiful. Eventually some of it would drift across the Mediterranean and hang in the clouds above the islands of the Aegean Sea which he loved. Some of it would be taken in by the breaths of Kurdish children playing in northern Iraq. Other parts would continue drifting in the atmosphere until it rained down upon the southern slopes of the Himalayas in a land he walked in as a young Navy ensign 60 years ago.
Da is a part of life not apart from life.
I think Da would like that very much.