Packing for the Final Journey

Last week my father asked me to plan his funeral. He’s dying, he knows he’s dying, and he just wants to get on with it already. He’s a practical man, and doesn’t want the burden to fall to my mother or anyone else at a time when everyone is already upset.

I waved him off, telling him we were just planning to put him on flaming ship and set it adrift. He told me not to waste the ship: a rowboat would do fine.

An Irish wake

When my mother scotched the rowboat idea, I made the arrangements for the funeral home. Sandy had already washed all the local rowboats out to sea anyway.

Being People Of A Certain Age, my parents go to a lot of funerals, so they were able to descant on the benefits and drawbacks of all the local undertaking establishments. Jessica Mitford wrote that funeral directors sell “dignity, refinement, high-caliber professional service, and that intangible quality, sincerity.” All of those things take a backseat to convenient off-street parking. There’s almost a palpable sense of irritation at dead people who get waked from places with bad parking, or long walks from the lot to the door.

That was a helpful criteria in knocking the potential vendors down to one.

Indeed, the parking offered by the final choice was quite good, even memorable.

This was the first funeral I’d planned by myself. Conditioned by Mitford and The Loved One, I was expecting an oleaginous salesman pushing me to buy a mink-lined steel casket with an Eternal Memory Foam pillow fringed in Flemish crepe and gently scented with lilac. What I got was calm, direct, compassionate professionalism.

That’s the thing with any profession: it’s known, fairly or not, for its worst practitioners. Mitford’s caustic dissection of the funeral industry was not unfair. In fact, at the time it was published in 1963 , it exposed widespread unethical behavior in the profession that lead to real changes. Swept up by that Mad Men, Madison Ave. vibe, people were manipulating the grieving at a vulnerable time in order to sell absurdities like a “Perfect-Posture bed” for a coffin. They were selling status, and if people couldn’t have it in life, they damn well would have it in death.

Mitford’s problem, however, was that she seemed to think this was wholly a product of modern First World marketing and capitalism, and merely another example of status-seeking by moneyed people, or those who desired to be thought of as moneyed. As such, it become little more than a shoddy echo of the quest of Pharaohs and potentates for a little glory on their way out. Given that Mitford was the wayward Communist child in a family of notorious Nazis, she viewed it through a lens of class and economics. Her friend Evelyn Waugh was right to note that she didn’t really seem to take any position on the subject of death and funeral customs.
Modern Americans are hardly alone in these excesses. The Ga-Adangbe of Ghana, for example, are famous for their lavish, sometimes comical, “fantasy coffins” crafted by carpenters with sublime skills at making figurative boxes. Complex funeral rites and grave accommodations are the bread and butter of the anthropologist and the archaeologist. They’re as old as man himself. Mitford seems to think it’s uniquely grotesque that it’s been commodified in modern capitalist society, but it’s not like the stone cutters of ancient Israel or the hired keeners of Ireland worked for free.

I don’t doubt there are excesses in the funeral industry today. Mitford famously got out of this world for a cremation without ceremony for $533.31. My dad’s sending-off will cost almost $8000, complete with funeral mass, wake, military honor guard, temporary coffin, cremation, and transportation. I’m told by some that’s a bargain.

I understand the horror most people feel at the thought of funeral planning, and the scams that are worked on the grieving on a daily basis. When the polite young lady presented me with a 1/2″ thick price list–which I had to sign for in advance–I was able to flip through more options (far more) than you’d face buying a new car, with a cost to match. I almost expected her to tell me she’d throw in the undercoating if I bought the extended warranty. The grieving, elderly people who are the normal customer of funeral directors would be an easy mark.

All of it is wrapped in a comfortable swaddling of genteel terminology, from the name of the coffin shell (“The Brockton Oak”) to the Everlasting Online Memorial. I could even have the entire affair catered.

We could have opted for none of it, of course. A cremation costs $595, if that was all we wanted, and as a veteran he would have received a discount for that.

But that’s not what we do. We have built a custom of grieving and farewell, and it wasn’t all engineered by the funeral industry. The tradition of paying respect is ancient, and if it’s been moved from a rough-hewn coffin on a couple of trestles in the home with a generous supply of whiskey and poteen, to a tastefully-decorated historical home (from whence “Captain Ruben Randolph and the local militia marched to the Battle of Monmouth in 1778″), then that’s all of a piece with the way modernity distances us from the more earthy realities of life. We don’t exactly slaughter our own beef or spin our own thread any more, either. And we really don’t want to. The funeral industry may well be riddled with abuses, but it’s also doing just want we want it to do. And we’re willing to pay well for it to perform that function.

Dad will get a decent sendoff, neither skinflinty nor excessive, just like the man himself. His life was almost entirely consumed by service: World War II, 25 years of volunteer firefighting, scout leadership, 76 years of church ushering, soup kitchen, and decades of back-breaking labor to sustain his family. Gathering some loved ones for a few hours to say farewell and then saying a mass to help ease his soul on its way is only his due.

I’ve told my wife I don’t want a wake. I don’t want to be embalmed or displayed. I don’t want people leaning over the box and saying how good I’ll look. I’ll look dead, and that’s never really good, even if I have an artist make me up.

My wife, however, tells me that the wake and funeral aren’t for the dead. They’re for the living, and the Church has three rites for the death of a Catholic: the wake, the funeral mass, and the internment, with prayers for each. And while my desires may be important, it’s the needs of the living–the grieving–that are paramount.

It was sensible of my father to send me off to deal with the arrangements. We have time to discuss things, and consider what’s essential (a hearse), what’s nice (flowers), and what’s wretched excess (canapes and $5000 coffins).

My dad is waiting to die. He’s comfortable, but fading, and eager to be on his way. He’s 90. He keeps saying, “I didn’t expect to live this long.” He’s cheated death an absurd number of times, including open heart surgery just a few years ago. Indeed, he’s had a bag packed for this journey since those dark days in the skies over Germany and France and Holland. The red-headed troublemaker once nick-named “Satan” by the nuns who educated him is ready to move on to his new accommodations, and he’s set to prove those nuns wrong. Our last gift to him in return for a lifetime of service will be to ease him on his way.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • joannemcportland

    God bless you, Tom. This is so beautiful and true. You have done a service not only for your father, but for the many of your generation who are dealing with the same circumstances and have no clue where to start. Thoughtful, loving funerals are a mitzvah for the whole world. You are blessed to have such a wonderful father, and he is equally blessed in you. Prayers for you both.

  • Kim Whelan

    God Bless Mrs. McDonald. “My wife, however, tells me that the wake and funeral aren’t for the
    dead. They’re for the living, and the Church has three rites for the
    death of a Catholic: the wake, the funeral mass, and the internment,
    with prayers for each. And while my desires may be important, it’s the
    needs of the living–the grieving–that are paramount.” I have had a similar conversation with my husband.

    I am a church secretary and deal with funeral homes regularly. I am saddened to see the “family-owned” funeral homes disappearing and turning into corporately run businesses. I’m not saying they are fleecing the grieving, but I don’t see professional caring concern with a great attention to detail in these businesses anymore. Certainly being a funeral director takes a special kind of person and training.

    Great post and I hope it moves us to all plan for our future.

  • Trudy W. Schuett

    I think your wife is correct. Neither of my parents had funerals, opting for the cheap cremation option. Then we all just had to go about our business, and I’ve always felt that was a mistake. People need a short space of time, if nothing else, to recognize their grief and know it’s OK to feel that, and that others feel it as well.

  • Manny

    My sympathies. I have also had a similar experience with the one funeral I arranged. There was no time to plan it, as most funerals are somewhat unplanned. It was for my father as well, and the funeral director was not a high pressure salesman (woman in this case), and she was also calm, professional, and dignified. I don’t look forward to doing that again, though I expect I will have to for my mother one of these years.

  • StanB

    The man who buried my father learned to bowl from my dad and cleared dads driveway of snow the last three years mom and dad had their house. You don’t have connections like that anymore. I think he loved dad almost as much as we did.

  • Maggie Goff

    Joanne said what I wanted to say, and so much better than I ever could. This was beautiful.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    This is why people always saved up money in a ‘burial club’ or had small life insurance policies, so that they could afford a decent funeral when they died. The local undertakers who buried my mother and then my father knew what we wanted, didn’t pressure us with high sales, and did a good job on the removal, the burial and the whole affair (even the little lapse with the music played for my father’s burial, when the tape was set for a jig instead of the slow air they intended to play, fitted in perfectly if serendipitiously because it was exactly the kind of thing he would have found funny).

  • Irene F.

    respect to your father for his heroism and service! I think that people of his generation are special, they are hard working and real fighters who did not give up easily.

    and yes, when one’s loves ones are gone, presence of friends and common prayer helps to face this transition. I have just come home from a pre-funeral service (“parastas” in Ukrainian), my friends’ family member has died. it seems that sharing one’s pain will not take it away, but seeing other people praying for the person you love and hearing verses from the Bible brings comfort and hope.