My first job was at a funeral home in the days when ambulances were part of funeral home services before EMS. I know what it was like to respond to heart attacks and strokes and more in the middle of the night.
I know what it was like behind the scenes when the mortician calls for assistance with a body after an autopsy of suicide at 3:00 am. I know what embalming is like, what it entails, the color of it first hand. I’ve stood as an usher outside of viewing rooms and watched over the families as they navigated both the known and foreign waters of final loss, so I know that world of service, as well.
And frankly, I would not change those memories. They are part of who I have become.
So, as I sat with all of those memories in the conference room of another funeral home. Angel, appropriately named, was my guide into another phase of my parents’ passing: the prearrangement they discussed but never got around to. There we were, she and I, delving into what my parents might want as their everlasting statement to a world they will never see.
It’s not about them, of course, but about those left behind. It’s about family and expectations when they could really care less except for whatever their decisions might bring to their children’s children’s children.
Funeral homes are consciously designed, and every aspect of them, from marketing to services provided, are focused on making the important choices easy and comfortable. I have no problem with that. I need that support, that assurance… the affirmation that they have this. It’s one less thing I have to deal with. And so my experience as an employee at the funeral home makes sense. I know that world. My anxious discomfort can joke with Angel, and she gets it.
It surprised me that my parents opted for cremation since their fundamentalist religion espouses that they will need their physical bodies when the Messiah returns. It surprised me less when they specified that they did not want a memorial. In my father’s words, “There’s no one left to attend. Everyone is gone.” At 92 years, that’s mostly true.
Still, having no memorial at all leaves out a lot of relationships: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren at the least, plus people in the church they attended for decades, and others who might want to pay their respects. Thinking in this way reflects more of their feeling of growing isolation with age than true clarity.
Personally, I think that the decision rests with my sister and me. Funerals and memorials are not for the deceased; they are for the living. They are a part of the healing process of grief. Angel spoke about that. Even though I was way ahead of her on the topic, I let her give me her thoughts uninterrupted. There was something in her words that suggested she was working on some of her own sadness.
Working in a funeral home carries its own special weight. Dealing with the emotional expression of shock, pain, and grief are difficult when confronted on a daily basis. Even when not working with families suffering a loss, every aspect of the workplace and work is about death.
When Angel and I finished our discussion, we rose and shook hands. She walked me to the entrance door, and we each returned to our routines and plans.
It was a beautiful day outside. I paused for several minutes to gaze at a jetliner cruising high overhead against a thinly clouded, bright blue sky. And for some reason, I remembered myself as a boy, lying on the grass at the seventh tee of Leon Valley Golf Course as my father teed off. The warmth of the sun on my face was exquisite.
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Elder Parents: The Journey Begins