I attended a wonderful memorial service this past weekend. It coincided with the Veteran’s Day holiday, so there was a tie-in to that national acknowledgment of loss and sacrifice. It got me to thinking about the rituals of death and how these are changing.
My first experience of death was on Thanksgiving in 1956 when my paternal grandfather had a heart attack in our home. According to stories, I asked if Grandpa had gone to heaven, but truly, I don’t remember much else of what must have been a very trying event. Of course there must have been a funeral, but I was too young to attend such a solemn affair.
My next experience was a few years later, when I was 10. My maternal grandmother died, also of a heart attack. This funeral was held in her home town (Watertown, WI) at a funeral home run by friends of the family. It was open casket, but I was not allowed to look in. I have two memories from this experience. The first, as a curious but wary observer, I remember watching the adults from a small alcove away from the viewing area, and seeing my grandfather crying unashamedly. The second, oddly, was a memory of being given chocolate nonpareils as a way of keeping me quiet and happy.
After the viewing, we joined the motorcade out to the grave site and said our goodbyes as the casket was lowered into the ground on the family plot. This was followed by a huge gathering at our family home where all sorts of people came to share stories about my grandmother. In the years that followed, we continued the custom of visiting the cemetery on holidays to lay flowers on the grave, tidy up the other family tombstones as well and generally commune with family members who had gone before.
Within a few more years, my father died. His funeral was much different and far more emotionally imprinted on my memory. Not so much for the actual service, but for the embarrassment I felt in the receiving line when my paternal grandmother wailed out of her grief in front of everybody, “My boy!, My boy!” I was fourteen at the time, and had shut down emotionally around my father’s illness and death. As a teenager, it was the social embarrassment of my grandmother acting out in public more than a feeling of loss or sadness over my father’s dying that stays with me to this day. My father was cremated. His ashes were put in a mausoleum. Curiously, I have never been to visit his resting place.
I was with my maternal grandfather when he received last rites, although he didn’t actually pass for several weeks. The same family undertakers took care of his remains. This time I made sure I looked in the casket. It was a handsome casket; expensive wood, quilted and tufted interior with silk pleats. Truly a worthy resting place for a man of my grandfather’s standing. His service was conducted at the Catholic church and from there the funeral cortege made its way down Main Street. The family story is that half-way through town, a Schlitz Beer delivery truck joined the funeral procession. We all thought this appropriate, since my grandfather definitely enjoyed his glass of beer!
For many years after these deaths I was spared more family funerals. Then, like a cluster of storms, my mother died, my husband died, and my cousin died. My mother had decided to “give her body to science”, however, at age 89, emaciated, and in the later stages of dementia, science said, “No, thank you.” This left me with figuring out what to do. I somehow did not have the time, money or energy to commit her body to the ground in the style of her parents.
The same family who had buried my grandparents were no longer in business, so I engaged another funeral home. I was shown around the viewing room filled with caskets, offered examples of the latest in jewelry that could be made to contain the ashes of my loved one, and informed of the costs involved in laying my mother to rest. I can still remember the conflicted feelings of wanting to give my mother a grand send off, but having to accept the fact that I did not have the financial resources to do that.
I also did not have time to put together a memorial service, which to this day has left me feeling quite guilty. Instead, my mother’s ashes sat on a shelf in the mortuary until I was able to return, and get her a headstone. She was finally interred on a hot and humid summer’s day where I and a cousin were eaten alive by mosquitoes, the only two witnesses to her last good-bye.
My husband was clear that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes spread in the ocean. This we accomplished with his children and grandchildren at a favorite beach on a lovely August afternoon. I kept some of his ashes aside, as I had promised him that I would also take him “home” to his favorite place in the Adirondacks, on Lake George where he had spent many happy summers as a child. In making this pilgrimage, I stopped off at his parent’s grave in Westport, CT, to pay my respects. Some 20 years earlier, my husband and I had visited that gravesite and cut back an evergreen shrub that had taken root and obscured their headstones. It remained visible and free of growth, although I have no idea who was tending to it.
What I have learned from all these experiences is that it is important to recognize and ritualize what happens after someone dies. Having a memorial service allows people to gather and remember, but also close the circle of that relationship. The staid script of a funeral mass or a graveside blessing marks the departure line between those of us tasked with continuing to live and those who no longer share it with us. It is a place, geographic and emotional, that can be re-visited as needed. Shared grief is an important step in the mourning process. Receiving the kind words and offers of sympathy may be taxing for the widow or widower, but it is also a balm for the living.
I don’t know how my remains will be handled. I have no children to mourn my passing or make decisions on where to distribute my ashes. Thanks to the foresight of my ancestors, I have a spot in the family plot that is there if I need to use it. I suspect I will put some money aside, and see about having my ashes planted with a tree. (Check out capsula mundi for more information on this form of burial).