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.