In the course of my conversations this week, I visited with a friend whose Dad is fading away due to dementia. Physically, he’s strong, and will probably plug along for years, but mentally, he’s in decline.
Because of this decline, he left the area of the state where he lived his adult life, and moved closer to my friend, first in her house and then in a care facility (where he currently resides).
As part of catching up, I asked about him, and my friend eventually steered the conversation to asking what to do about his funeral arrangements (as often happens in my world).
Dad owns a plot where Mom is buried, my friend said. How do I get his body up there? Who should I call? Who will bury him? And what will it cost?
At first, through our conversation, it sounded like my friend was heading toward a direct burial. Her father is old and because of his mental state hasn’t been able to keep up with relationships or friendships for years, so he’s largely lost all his contacts (the ones who haven’t died themselves) in the hometown, and also has none to speak of in our town. Direct burial with a small graveside moment for family, without a public service of any sort, easy to plan at a reasonable cost–seemed like a no-brainer.
But as we talked a bit more, I watched my friend wrestle with the choice and the implications of it, aware that she was going against tradition and that beast, Should. It’s something I see often in my work–we know what a funeral is supposed to look like, so even if it’s not what we want in rational moments, there’s a need of returning to the Should, the Right and Supposed to, when we’re on uncertain, unfamiliar ground, fogged by grief, exhausted by emotion.
My friend struggled for a while as we talked, trying to decide if she wanted to hold a traditional funeral service for her dad in the old town or just bury him quietly. There were good reasons for (chance to honor dad in his hometown; a parallel to the same service her mother had had years ago) and against (cost of involving two separate entities, the local home to do body care and the hometown one for a funeral service; the potential for low attendance). Ultimately, she’ll have to weigh the logistics and realities against her understanding of what her extended family will need at the time. Thankfully, because we’re starting the conversations now, we can explore more detail about pros and cons, and come to a reasonable solution without the pressures of time and emotion crowding the process.
There’s a good reason many of our traditional funeral rites exist–they’re time-tested, and give the community a structure to show respect and support for a grieving family. Little traditions may not feel significant, may seem like a waste of time and energy and precious cash until you’re in the moment; it’s hard to know which will be meaningful and be missed for their absence if you abandon them.
All the more reason to think these things through now. Every time you attend a funeral, observe which of the elements feel important (or superfluous) to you–which are essential and need to happen, which need to be abandoned like that old flip phone. And since we all know funerals and memorial services are as much about the survivors as the deceased, this is an important conversation to have out loud with the crew who love you–what do they think will matter to their grief? What would they just as soon not hear/see/do at your funeral?
PS: do I need to remind you that, no matter what you decide, you must write it down??