A Tupperware Coffin


Mama ordered a $10 plastic urn. The nit-pickiest woman on planet earth – the very same woman who pitched a hissy fit if my roots were showing, or if I went to town without lipstick on, the woman who spent the last hours of her life shopping for the perfect leather purse — picked out a Tupperware coffin.

“Why didn’t she tell us?” I cried to Linda. “We could have gone shopping together for something useful.”

Mama had pointed out the funeral home during a recent drive through town, told me she picked that one because they were affordable. I might point out that never in her life had Mama been one to skimp on spending money on her own wardrobe. The stories I could tell you about Mama and her shopping sprees.

It never occurred to me to ask her if she had picked out an urn. Oh. You should have seen the gardens Mama grew! Every rose bush specially ordered from Jackson-Perkins. Mama spent more money on her garden than she did my college education. Truth.  How could such a woman pick Tupperware for her burial bed?

No. Way. I told my brother when I found out that she had bought a $10 urn for her ashes. Nu-huh. I will find an urn. We are not burying Mama in a Tupperware bowl.

Although, let me just say for the record Mark Childress is a comic genius for coming up with CRAZY IN ALABAMA, the story of a woman who decapitates her husband and carries his head around in a Tupperware bowl. My children were all in high school when I first read that book and howled until I cried. I read them parts of the book, and laughed some more. I”m pretty sure that’s when each one of my children had their Come-to-Jesus moment.

But what is belly-aching funny in fiction is not in real-life.

I told my brother and sister I would find something suitable to bury our mama in.

I spent the better part of this past week looking.

I tried two different Pier Ones, three different gift shops, T.J. Maxx, where I actually did find an urn but then proceeded to drop the top and break it before I reached the check-out. A blessing really, as I told my sister, because you don’t want to be dropping the urn after you’ve put your mama in it. Linda agreed it was best to break it ahead of time.

I tried floral shops. And, yes, I could have gone to the funeral home and picked out something, but Mama loved beautiful things, and shopping. It only made sense to me that we find her urn at someplace she would shop herself.

There are a lot of beautiful vases that would work, the florist said, but it’s hard to get lids for them. Finding an urn was really the only job I had to do beside get the guest book and write the obit (and it was already written and in print). Mama tasked Linda with doing all the funeral arrangements and Frank gets the chore of paying off Mama’s Nordstroms bill.

Tuesday was New Year’s so that cut into my shopping opportunities. I didn’t think I was going to find an urn but I tried one more stop on my way home — Hermiston Drug Store. I figured at the very least they would have a guest book.

The lady in the blue smock working the register wore a name tag: Anita.

“Do you have any guest books?” I asked.

“Why, yes,” she said, stepping around the counter. Hermiston Drugs is the kind of store where they provide old-fashioned customer service. They actually escort you down the aisles. They have pretty good milkshakes in the lunch counter in the back of the store, too, if you’ve got a hankering for one. I didn’t.

“Is this for a wedding?” Anita asked.

“No,” I said. “A funeral.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she replied. Her brow knitted in worry. She could tell that this wasn’t just any funeral because of the pained look that came across my face.

“My mother.”

Anita stopped right there next to the Fenton glassware and said, “Oh, dear, can I give you a hug?”

Well, if there is ever a time a girl or a boy needs a hug it’s when their mama dies. If you meet somebody on the street or at the beach and they tell you that their mama has just died you owe it to all of humanity to ask them if they need a hug, because, trust me, they need it in the worst way.

I know I did.

Anita reached up over my  neck and hugged me tight the way we ought to hug the mourning. Then, she helped me pick out a guest book for my mama’s final farewell.

“Is there anything else you need?” she asked.

“Uh, yes,” I said. “I need an urn. A vase with a lid. I saw one when I came in that I just love but the thing is it’s clear.”  I walked Anita over to where I’d first eyed the leaded crystal vase. “It’s just so beautiful, I think my mother would love it. But I don’t know about it being clear. Do you have anything like it?”

Anita searched up and down the shelves, throughout the store, looking for anything similar to the vase I had picked out.

No. Nothing.

“Okay, no worries,” I said. “Thank you for helping. I think I’ll check with my sister and see what she says about this one.”

I sent my sis a photo of the clear vase. Thank you, Apple. Then I called her and my brother. I don’t think either of them were keen to the notion of putting Mama’s ashes in a leaded crystal vase that was clear, but both were reluctant to tell me no. We’ve tried to be that way with each other through all of this. Realizing we have our differences, talking everything out, careful to be tender because everyone is so wounded already.

“We can put some rose petals on the top,” I said. “It could be pretty.”

It’s up to you, they both said.

So I took the black leather guest book and the crystal vase up to the counter where Anita proceeded to wrap up everything nicely so nothing would break like last time.

As she handed me the receipt, Anita said, “I am going to be praying for you. It’s hard to lose a parent, especially a mom. We have that deep spiritual connection to our moms.”

I walked out of the store, tears blurring my vision, clutching the crystal urn secured in a box, to my car.

Which had a flat tire.

I laughed. Then called my son, who dutifully came to change it, without complaint.

It’s been that way all week long. So many people reaching out, offering a helping hand, gentle words, unexpected embraces and untethered prayers.

I am surrounded by an army of Anita Angels.

I hope you can see clear through to this heart overflowing with gratitude.

I’d hug your neck if I could reach you.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED, HarperCollins.











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  • pastordt

    Karen, I thank you so much for these heartfelt, beautiful stories about this hard, hard journey. We just made the decision to move my 91-year-old mama into an assisted living memory loss unit nearer to us – watching her lose herself has been just about the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Prayers, blessings, hugs if I could send them as you do the service and walk out into tomorrow without her.

  • Sharon O

    I love that song, it is gentle and encouraging and I am praying for you too. I personally did not have a good relationship with my mother so it is different for me, but I know your heart is hurting and time will soften the harshness of your loss. You will always miss her.

  • Dorcie

    Beauty for ashes….an amazing song and a perfect caption for the picture……

  • militarymedical

    If that vase is Fenton glass, then you really did right by your Mama. They are no longer in business. They were a fine old West Virginia glassware firm (the glassware equivalent, in market terms, of Homer Laughlin’s Fiestaware). She might have appreciated the Southern connection, too. (This is from Sam, BTW.)

  • Debbie

    Prayers for your family during this difficult time. This is hard. I am sorry.

  • Beady Blossom

    Thank you for your writings, I so understand about choosing the right urn or coffin. My dad was a preacher and always said he just wanted to buried in “an ole pine box”. When we kids went to make the arrangements at the mortuary (he was only 67 yrs), the director just said that he didn’t have the right coffin and would need to get it from the other mortuary and would bring it back and we could ‘see it tomorrow’; it was a pine box all right, the most beautiful carved pine coffin at a very special price, we realized that after working with our dad for over 30 yrs of funerals the director also knew our dad very well, we burst out laughing, our dad did enjoy a good laugh also. A crystal ‘biscuit jar’ has a lid so that is very logical because it is also beautiful and better reflects a personality than a regular urn.