Tag Archive | "burial customs"

The Last Stop on Your Earthly Ride

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Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m the compassionate, slightly ghoulish son who inherited his father’s business in the hit series Six Feet Under.  Let’s pretend also, that the cosmos, or perhaps your doctor, has tipped you off to the fact that you aren’t long for this world.  Gently, but with a salesman’s deft touch, I — the young undertaker — inquire, “So, what kind of send-off do you prefer?”  Startled, you blink and stammer, “S-send off?  I’m here to discuss plans for my funeral!”  I then give you my best mortician’s smile, nod in total agreement, and haul out a thick, 4/color catalog full of options.

If this scenario makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone.  Most of us cringe at the thought of facing our own demise, including how our remains will spend the rest of eternity.

My personal preference is to be cremated.  It’s quick, the going rate is more than 10 times cheaper than interment, and I like the idea of going out in a blaze of glory.  Another woman I know also prefers cremation.  She is an organ donor and hopes that there won’t be much left of her body when she leaves this Earth, so that people desperate for organs will be given a new lease on life.  She figures that since there will be so little to bury, she would like, as she’s told her family repeatedly, “to be crisped like an order of French fries.” She claims that she will come back to haunt them if her wishes are not honored!

Yet, others of my acquaintance find the thought of cremation appalling.  They rail that cremation leaves our loved ones with nothing: no headstone upon which to place flowers, no gravesite at which to mourn.   This is not an unusual perspective, given the fact that funerals are not for the dead, who can see and feel nothing, or so says the Bible (“The dead…are conscious of nothing, at all” states Ecclesiastes 9:5).  While this is a strange perspective, given the fact that the Christian faith is built upon the concept of eternal life, wakes and funerals are really designed to comfort the living.  They provide a formal, designated period of mourning before the deceased is laid to rest in the ground or placed into that great log flume going up, as Norman Greenbaum sang, “To the spirit in the sky.”

Traditional funerals, however, are extremely costly.  The current average cost for a modest wake — including embalming, the casket, the plot, and the actual burial process — is $10-$12,000.  This is a terrible financial burden for the family to bear, unless the deceased proactively purchased and paid the premiums upon an insurance policy specifically meant to foot the bill for his or her burial.  Cremation, on the other hand, goes for approximately $700-$800, including the cost of an average urn.

Burials also carry hidden costs, including the impact upon our environment.  The cheapest, and therefore the majority, of caskets have historically been made of wood, which means that a lot of trees go to their Maker along with the human dead.  In addition, the removal of trees from the land increases the threat of flooding during storms, as trees’ roots help to absorb rainwater.  The metal caskets in vogue today, while they destroy no trees, last much longer than their natural counterparts and create their own disposal and recycling problems in the future (since most funeral plots are really only rented for a period of time – usually 99 years).

Cremation, on the other hand, may hike up the air pollution level.  But considering how the research findings and warnings of former Vice President Gore and his college professor have been ignored and even discredited, nobody’s really going to give a rat’s hind end about a tad more pollution, particularly if cremation is its source.  What’s the alternative?  Taxidermy?  I think there are laws against that, or at least, I hope they are!  Cryogenic freeze?  Not all of us are rich as Michael Jackson was, to afford such an option (nor as idealistic, to believe that someone in the future will actually care enough to defrost us).

To mitigate the effects upon the environment, some so-called tree huggers are opting for cardboard caskets.  But this still requires the removal of trees from our landscape … unless one is willing to trust recycled paperboard, which as every American consumer knows, is flimsy.  I’d hate to be toted to the graveyard in a cardboard box on a rainy day.  From an environmental perspective, cremation is more desirable.  All one has to do is leave instructions for one’s ashes to be placed within, say, an empty two-liter bottle of Pepsi® or Tide®.  Recycled, indeed!!!

Another disadvantage of a traditional burial is … how shall I put this delicately, since I’m no tender funeral director in real life?  I guess there’s no delicate way to put it.   Another disadvantage to a traditional burial is that you never do know with whom you may wind up spending eternity.   As the population continues to boom and greedy real estate moguls continue to gobble up the land, space for occupied caskets has become a premium.

London, England has already adapted its famous double-decker bus design for its overcrowded cemeteries.  The British are now burying their dead two deep, one atop the other, as a space-saving strategy.  Here in New Jersey, the fourth smallest and most densely populated State in the Union, we’ve begun to do the same.  And New York, which is no slouch in the population department, is following suite.  I don’t know about you, but if there has to be a strange man atop me, I want him young, good looking, and alive!!!

Traditional funerals also tax the families emotionally, as decisions must be made as to what to place inside the coffin before it is lowered forever into its grave.   The practice of placing items into a sarcophagus initiated in ancient Egypt, with a people who understood fully that human beings spend a lot more time dead than alive.   Into those caskets of old were placed, among other things, baskets of food for sustenance in the afterlife.  Nowadays, I’ve seen a full gamut of merchandise from teddy bears to cigarettes to football jerseys tucked in beside the deceased, making me wonder sometimes if these were wakes or the aisles of Wal-Mart.  The trouble with this practice, however, is that loved ones left do not get to keep and savor those cherished mementos that so remind them of those who have passed on.

In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the dead were compelled to traverse the River Styx in order to reach the underworld.  In those cultures, coins were placed over the eyes of the dead as a sort of toll: a bribe to the Stygian boatman to ferry his cargo safely across the river.

In this economy, nobody’s willing to part with their hard-earned cash, even for their dead.  But down through the ages, people have inserted some interesting things into coffins.  Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, said fare-de-well with his favorite pipe and tobacco, Wild Bill Hickock took his Sharpe® rifle, and for whatever reason, Rudolph Valentino had a slave bracelet with him.  Elvis Presley was buried with a diamond ring and Andy Warhol’s casket held a bottle of Estee Lauder® perfume.  Rosary beads given to her by Mother Teresa accompanied Princess Diana to her eternal rest.  A California socialite, Sandra Illene West, took along her 1965 Ferrari.  I’m not sure if car itself served as the casket, but this lady obviously went out in style.

Humphrey Bogart had a small gold whistle from his wife, Lauren Bacall, whom he’d met on the set of the 1944 film, To Have and to Have Not.   The whistle was a reference to Lauren’s famous sultry line to Bogie, “If you need anything, just whistle.”

The Italian actor, Bela Lugosi, who never escaped the stereotype of Dracula, was buried with the cape of the character that had made him famous.  I wonder how many people Bela freaked out when he did that!  Frank Sinatra, in keeping with his Rat Pack persona, was buried with a flask of Jack Daniels®.   Although the friend I’d mentioned earlier, the lady who wishes to be cremated, never cared much for Sinatra or his music, she agrees with him about the booze.

One woman I know, proudly of Italian heritage, desires, upon her passing, nothing less than a full-blown Irish wake.  Long ago, she left her best friend a list of the musical selections she would like played at both the wake and the Mass she’s sure her survivors will insist upon.  The song played in church will be U2’s elegant and moving One Tree Hill: an epitaph that Bono wrote for a young friend of the band tragically killed in a motorcycle accident.  But the church ceremony, there will be a rousing party with punk rock, hard rock, the blues, “trad” Irish music, and some reggae and salsa tossed just to keep things interesting.

This woman wants her friends and surviving family members to toast her life, not mourn it — with wine, beer, and cocktails.  She wants them to trade stories about her, funny and poignant stories; she does not wish to see them weeping as she looks down upon them enjoying their lasagna!  Most of all, she wants them to realize the brevity of life as well as the fact that one must seek joy on this Earth if one is be truly alive and not, well, the walking dead.

I sincerely hope that family members who bury their loved ones underground or in mausoleums take comfort in the knowledge that there is a physical place they can visit to remember and honor their dead.  As for me, I feel that there is nothing to honor below the ground; the minute that we close our eyes in this life, we open them again in the presence of God (and hopefully not that guy with the horns and pitchfork).  The only things we leave behind “down here” are not things at all.  They are the lives that we have touched, the inventions or sacrifices that have benefitted others, and the charities and other good causes that we have supported; in other words, the love we have given freely from our hearts to those who share our bloodlines and to those who do not.  While our souls continue in the afterlife, these are the things that truly commemorate our spirits and serve as inspiration for others after we have drawn our last breaths. 

Jumping into the Hole

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On a bleak, 3-degree New York winter’s day several weeks ago, I buried a relative by marriage.  As my husband was a pallbearer, I drove to the cemetery with my brother-in-law, who muttered repeatedly under his breath, like a mantra, “Please, let them not take us up right up to the hole.”   My own family buries our dead in a more genteel manner, so I was a bit taken aback by this never-before-experienced prospect, particularly after my brother-in-law added, “Do you know how many funerals I’ve attended where those left behind have tried to actually jump into the hole?”

While this was an image I could have done without, I still wasn’t getting the “hole” picture until we trudged over the half-sodden, half-frozen ground, right up to the grave site: that inescapable six-foot hole cut into the earth.  One of other pallbearers slipped over the unforgiving ground and nearly slid into that hole.  And with the earth so soggy, I too nearly took a header into the grave as I leaned in to place a rose upon the coffin in a final goodbye.  Afterward, my brother-in-law confessed, “Do you know how relieved am I that nobody tried to jump into the hole after him?”

The man we buried has quit this Earth, but his was a wake and funeral will live with me forever; I have never before stared down into a grave awaiting its booty.  Along with thoughts of how brief life is in this plane, my brother-in-law’s words haunt me still.   I wondered who might want to jump into my grave, when the time comes.  Whoever it is (and I have a pretty good idea), they will be robbed of that “privilege.”

The Catholic Church forbade cremation for centuries, but since I made a conscious decision to leave the Church years ago, I will not be facing the flames of hell for breaking with dogma that has since been altered.  Rather, the body I will no longer need will be licked clean by a manmade fire.  Half of my ashes will be sprinkled here in the States, and half overseas, in locations known only to my nearest and dearest.   In making this decision, and in laying plans for my own funeral, I realize that I have spared my loved ones the sturm and drang, the emotional and fiscal costs associated with a more traditional send-off.

My goodbye will not be what constitutes, in my eyes, a rather barbaric custom.  It will not leave people asking themselves that which I’d asked myself of this aforementioned relative’s wake. “Why was he not more considerate of his family and friends?” I wondered. “He knew he was dying.  Why did he put us through all of this: the trip upstate, the money laid out for three nights in a hotel, the special funeral attire (I never wear black), the three squares a day in local restaurants, the pricey flower arrangements?  Why did he do this to us?  Did it bring him some comfort to force us to mourn him in this archaic and painful manner?”

And then it hit me.  He may have done nothing to us.  It may have been his family wanting the old-fashioned Italian wake and burial, as the deceased was of Polish descent and a damned brave man to have married into a family comprised almost solely of Italian-Americans!

And then I wondered why on God’s green Earth would his family have wanted to put themselves through such an ordeal?

The man who had passed on had suffered from a form of cancer once remitted and then returned to attack other parts of his body.  In the casket, he looked nothing like the vivacious, wisecracking, generous soul he had been in life.  In fact, his gray, sunken face told of his suffering.  His wife was well prepared for his passing, or so she had led us to believe.  Why did she wish to stare at his shell in that box for hours on end, over two days plus another few hours on the morning that we put him in the ground?  Was this respectful to him?  Although my family takes care of these things in a much quieter and quicker manner (and yes, I am an Italian-American), I thought that perhaps this was the widow’s way of jumping into the hole after her husband; maybe it was her way of grieving.  

As I sat at length in that too-warm room redolent of the sickly odor of lilies, I realized that perhaps the mourners were not weeping for the deceased; they were crying for themselves.

Their lives would be diminished by the passing of this great big bear of a man who always had a joke on his tongue, enjoyed spectator sports vociferously, and whose front door and refrigerator were always open to guests, both invited and unexpected.  They would miss his heated political arguments that usually ended in him poking fun at the strunzes in our nation’s capitol.  They would miss making fun of him as he turned up his nose, as he had for decades, at the fried calamari and other cultural delicacies that most of the rest of us ate with gusto.  And no doubt, those grieving wondered who would take care of them.

The dead man had left his wife well cared-for financially, and they owned a large piece of property with a house to match.  Who, now, would mow that property, seed it, and weed it?  Who would chase the deer away from the roses and fruit trees in the summer?  Who would chop the firewood and rake the leaves in the autumn and remove the snow in the winter?  Who would keep the widow company in a house far too large for a sole occupant whose mind and heart would turn again and again to the empty chair, the empty place in the bed beside her?  

Perhaps she had restrained herself from actually jumping into the hole by going through a long, drawn-out, emotionally exhausting process of the two-to-three-day wake and funeral still favored by my elders.

Me, I won’t be doing this to my loved ones when my times comes.  Years ago, I left a living will for my best friend to carry out, and it will not be a lavish, somber affair in the old Italian tradition.  After doling out all of my still-functional organs to those on waiting lists who truly need them, what is left of my body will take its final journey down that burning log flume.  There will be nothing to bury and no waiting hole in the ground to haunt my loved ones with its starkness and finality.  There will be no headstone, for I will not be in the ground.  My spirit will be with the Being who created me, in whom I have the utmost of faith. 

I hope no one wears black to my send-off, for black is the absence of all light.  Mine will be a fine Irish wake, replete with “craick” (story telling and jokes), “hoisting a jar or two” (enjoying alcoholic beverages) in my honor, and playing specific selections of music that have lifted my heart throughout my life on this planet.

There are those who hope that their spouses, family, and friends will shed copious tears upon their passing.  I am not one of those people.  If my loved ones weep, I hope they do so in private, for I want no sad faces, and misery loves company.  Oh, they will mourn because the rock of the family has passed; they’ll wonder who will take care of them.  But their lives will go on until they, too, are called Home.

Most of all, I hope that those who truly knew me enjoy the stories of how I lived my life rather than how I died.  And I hope that they tell them often as they remember me, until we meet again in the Light of the Lord. 

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