day 2: arrangements

On Friday, we began with some of our difficult responsibilities. Dad already had purchased a number of cemetery plots–in fact, the receipt for their final payment had arrived while he was in the hospital–though he hadn’t yet chosen which one he wanted. Our first stop, though, was to the funeral home, where we had to provide the information to go into his obituary for the newspaper, and deal with all the details and arrangements for the viewing, the funeral and the interment. I don’t begrudge the staff of funeral homes making an honest living, but I’m disgusted at how much it costs to leave the world after you’re dead. It’s a couple thousand dollars just to walk into the funeral home, before you’ve even selected the casket, vault, flowers, cars, etc. My father, a financially savvy, frugal man, would have been appalled at the potential costs that literally were going to be thrown into a hole in the ground. In addition to the casket, which is seen for brief periods of time over the period of a few days, there’s the vault–the container into which the casket is sealed–which is never seen by anyone; at the interment the vault was covered by astroturf. These two items cost within a range of about $1,000 to as much as $12,000–each.

It’s not precisely that I begrudge spending money in someone’s honor, but this is a substantial amount that comes, at least immediately, out of my mother’s living expenses–compounding the injury, when Dad turned 65 just three weeks ago his substantial life insurance policy ended, so all Mom has now is a little bit of social security, and the stocks and mutual funds into which Dad had invested over the years (not insignificant, but which lost a great part of their value in the recession of the past few years). Mom’s by no means destitute over the longer term, but has little in the way of liquid assets more immediately, and that’s where the funeral expenses are drawn. And my sister and I want to help, but she and her husband have three kids, one of whom hopes to enter college this fall; and, while I do well for myself, especially as a single man, my own savings are about to be plundered for a new heat pump and either a new engine for my current car or a new car altogether.

Anyway, that’s just a gripe about the compounded injury when a person dies; you’ve lost not only the loved one, but suddenly your financial health potentially is threatened as well by the loss of their income and by the funeral expenses. I don’t know how poorer families cope at all in the face of a death.

After we’d chosen a casket and vault, and signed off on the preliminary cost estimate, we made our next stop at the florist to commission a floral spray for the casket. We went to a florist shop owned by a high school friend of mine, known for his beautiful work. We told him we wanted autumn flowers and colors, a favorite of all of ours but also appropriate because of the closeness of the date to the anniversary of Mom and Dad’s wedding, at which they’d also had fall flowers. Beyond that, we gave him no instruction, but just told him to create what he wished. When we saw it the next day at the funeral home, we were stunned; he’d gone far beyond even his usual fine work, and certainly had created something for which normally he’d have charged far more. It was an amazingly beautiful arrangement primarily of yellow, orange and red flowers among the greenery, with an occasional deep purple, and with accents in copper and golden-brown. There was some sort of needled evergreen-like branch threaded throughout, upon which were the prettiest little coppery white flowers; I’d never before seen conifer sprigs that flowered.

Our final stop that morning was to the cemetery to see where the plots were located, and to choose one of them for Dad. They’re in a new part of the cemetery, in a pretty little field bordered on one side by the woods.

In the meantime, my cousin Susan, who cuts hair for a competing mortuary in town, received permission from the funeral home with which we were doing business to come cut my dad’s hair. I’m amazed that she was able to do so for my dad–she also cut our grandmother’s hair after she died–but she did, and she did a wonderful, loving job.

We spent the rest of the day at home, where a steady stream of family and friends visited well into the night. We did go back to the funeral home that evening to view the body, just with family; walking into that room the first time was one of the hardest things I did all weekend, but within a little while my mom, my sister and I were sharing funny stories and memories of Dad. A little while later my brother-in-law arrived with the two youngest of my three nephews, and that was very, very painful. I can’t quite imagine what it’s like for Shane, at 8. At times he was almost blithely secure in his little boy certainty of Dad’s fate: he drew a picture of Dad playing softball in heaven with dead Brooklyn and LA Dodgers–Dad’s favorite baseball team–of the past. At other times, though, he was a pitiful little boy, crying but feeling embarrassed, wondering if “Grandaddy is really dead, or if the doctors and machines just made a mistake.”