Grave Responsibilities

THEY ALWAYS CALL IN THE MIDDLE OF DINNERgrave responsibilities. And they're always from places that sound folksy and green—Willow Park, Heritage Creek, Oakland Hills, Forest Lawn. And I'm never quite sure just what they're selling. Is it golf club memberships or time-share condos or New Age religion or nursing home care?

"Protection...inevitable... eventual reality..." There's a flurry of meaningful concept words.

Often as not it's the cemetery near the interstate calling to sell me my "memorial estate." The silky voice reads out the sales pitch involving "once-in-a-lifetime discounts" and "never-say-never savings" on what she is calling my "final expenses."

There's a Catholic one called Gate of Heaven that has their "minister of consolation" call. Her name is Martha, and she tells me, "Preplanning your funeral is an act of faith!"

"Faith in what?" I ask her. "Caskets? Graves?" Can consolation be prepaid?

I tell Martha the Minister of Consolation that I'm a funeral director. I've got my own "stuff" already—at wholesale. But this doesn't seem to put her off. She's halfway through the first page of script, earnestly inserting my name in the blanks.

"So much better to do this when heads are cool, ah... Mr. Lynch, before the need arises. Before your family is vulnerable to someone who might take advantage of their grief. Our counselor will be happy to come to your home!"

This caution is based on the conventional if slightly twisted wisdom that the fellow who will cheat you six hours after a death can be trusted six months or six years before you die.

"Preplanning is something you can do for your family. They'll always remember that you cared enough to take care of these difficult decisions." Is this to be my legacy then—that I planned my funeral in advance?

"You can be sure everything is done the way you want it."

There's this hint in her voice that my kids won't do me properly—that they'll spend too little and blame it on me ("Dad wouldn't want us to overdo it"). Or they'll spend too much on pricey funeral accessories and sentimentals—wasting the money I wanted spent on my future grandchildren's laptop computers.

Either way, the minister of consolation seems to be saying, they'll never get it right. The fashionable flash of generational mistrust and the basic narcissism of the age are somewhere in the subtext of her soft contralto. That I can run my affairs literally into the ground is oddly appealing. Have it your way, she seems to be saying, like Burger King or Frank Sinatra.

"We have many, many options to choose from. Dozens of different payment plans."

She's pushing the right buttons for us Boomers now—planning, choices, easy finance. We love these things. As if a good life insurance policy was the same as a good life. Planned parenthood, prenuptials, prearranged funerals—always this hopeful notion that we might prefeel the feelings—the untidy, potentially embarrassing dynamics of birth and love and death and grief; the blubbering and baby talk, the sense that these unpredictable, existential events might be turned into manageable retail experiences with numbers and prices that always add up. The notion of "choice" in the contemplation of our own mortality—that part of our nature about which we have no choice—though entirely mistaken, is vaguely comforting.

But when I do not rise to these various baits, Martha pulls out the old reliable: "You don't want to be a burden to your children, do you?"

This is the salesperson's coup de grace, reaching deep into the parental psyche to tap the wellspring of ever-present residual guilt over not taking the kids to Disney World enough, or to the therapist or dermatologist enough; for never spending enough quality time with them, or not buying them a pony or a new car or private schools. Here is the chance to make it all up to them by prearranging my own funeral, saving them from all the difficult decisions that they will eventually have to live with.

I see them now—my darling sons, my fierce daughter—heartsore and vulnerable at the news of my untimely and possibly heroic death. The burden of it all will be overwhelming. I think of them with their cell phones and gold cards and higher educations and inheritance. I see them with their good teeth and designer jeans, their futures spread out before them. And it occurs to me: Why shouldn't I be a burden to my children? Haven't they all been a burden to me?

Oh, lovely burdens—don't get me wrong—every one of them, but burdens all the same. Taking care of their earaches and heartaches and broken bones and disappointments, paying for their college and dance classes and car insurance—they've been a burden. I think maybe they were supposed to be.

Over the years I've had to explain the death of their grandparents, the suicides of classmates, the divorce of their mother and father, the misbehavior of our political leaders, how love hurts and life isn't fair. I've done carpools and bag lunches and overwhelming questions; broken hearts, Little League and PTA, difficult choices and the facts of life. Sometimes it got really heavy. Sometimes I had to tell them I didn't know the answer. Sometimes all we could do was pray. They've been a burden.

And bearing these burdens of love and grief has made me feel alive, involved, evolved in ways I never thought I would be. It has made me feel needed and necessary and part of the family. It has made me feel "called" to be a parent. As if God intended me to tend to them. And if it has left me bald and near broke and fairly bewildered, it has likewise left me full of faith, blessed, and thankful—convinced that I couldn't do it alone, certain of God's watchful parenting in our lives. After everything, being their father has brought more meaning to my life than any other thing I've ever done or been. Bearing that burden has been a gift.

And when I die, bearing the burden of burying me or burning my body or blasting it all into space should be theirs to do. If I have the heaven my faith lays claim to—I needn't worry about the rest. My funeral is not mine to do. It will belong to and benefit those who love me and survive me. They will be paying for it emotionally, financially, actually.

Since they have to live with the decisions, why shouldn't they make them? Since I'll be leaving them everything else, oughtn't I leave them these duties too? If I've done my job, then they'll know what to do. If the burden of my death, borne honorably, fills them with faith and makes them aware of God's gifts of family and friends and love, as bearing the sweet burden of their lives has made me feel, I can do them the favor of leaving well enough alone.

Planning for funerals is no bad thing. And putting money aside for such things is sensible. But the planning is better done between husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and fellow pilgrims than between the buyers and the sellers of things. Once we get the essentials right, the accessories will take care of themselves. Have faith in your people—they'll know what to do.

A good funeral is not a great investment; it is an existential moment in a family's history. It is not a hedge against inflation; it is a rite of passage. It is not a retail event; it is an effort to make sense of our mortality. It is not an exercise in salesmanship; it is an exercise in humanity.

In the end a good funeral is not about how much we buy or how much we save; it's not about the boxes or flowers or bottom line. It is about what the living do with the dead. We deal with death by dealing with the dead, and with grief by dealing with those in grief. A good funeral is more than the plan, the policy, and the paperwork. It is the thing we humans do when someone dies. It is an act of faith in the face of human frailty, hope in the face of heartbreak. It is an act of love and letting go.

When I tell the minister of consolation these things, she goes silent. It is not in her script. She hangs up. We return to what's left of our lives and times. 

Thomas Lynch is a writer and funeral director. This article is adapted from his essay collections, The Undertaking (W.W. Norton and Co., 1997) and Bodies in Motion and at Rest (W.W. Norton and Co., 2000). ©Thomas Lynch.

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