How many funerals – total – have you attended so far? Which had the most impact?
Eight, all total.
My father’s mother: I was 11 and I remember touching her cold face in the coffin and thinking that she didn’t feel real. I was far too preoccupied with all the family around and the attention, and probably not sad enough. But I was young, and she had died of cancer and it had been really unpleasant for a long time and I was a little glad that it was all over.
My mother’s father: I had just turned 18 and moved off to college, and he died during Rush week. I drove 2 hours home to the funeral, then turned around and drove 2 hours straight back to go to the Rush event that night. I remember sobbing at the graveside and wondering even then why I was so upset. We were not particularly close, but (looking back) I was stressed out over so much changing in such a short time and all of that anxiety manifested itself in my grieving.
My godmother: she had a heart attack while on vacation in Florida and had to be transported back, not even home but to UAB. I was terrified at the thought of her death and I didn’t want to go see her, I didn’t want it to be real. I’m crying now, I still don’t want it to be real. She was intubated and couldn’t speak and I started crying in the hospital room and didn’t want to upset her. I told her I loved her and squeezed her hand and basically ran. She died a few days later. I sobbed at the funeral home, I sobbed at the graveside, I sobbed when I got home. I loved her so much and I still miss her. They had a floral spray on top of her coffin with feathered doves holding ribbons with the names of each of her grandchildren – and me. I still have it. It lives in the box with the Christmas decorations, and each year I pull it out and think of her.
My husband’s grandfather: I was seven months pregnant in June in Alabama in a year where we had had blackouts all summer long. It was hot and humid and miserable. He had had Alzheimer’s and we had gone to see him the morning that he died. We sat vigil with the family for a few hours and then left – we stopped to eat lunch, and before we made it home my husband got the call that he was gone. The rest of the family who weren’t already here drove in and we spent the next 4 days in the family cocoon. I teared up on behalf of my husband’s sadness, but I never really knew his grandfather. The Alzheimer’s had already advanced by the time we met, and I honestly don’t remember the man ever speaking to me. He would stare at me at dinner, and Gramma would remind him that I was M’s wife, but I don’t think he ever really knew who I was. The Army sent someone to play Taps at the graveside, and an honor guard to fold the flag from his coffin. I stood in the heat in my black dress trying to find a comfortable position and counting down the minutes to get back inside somewhere air conditioned. But it could have been worse – I could have been stuck sitting on a fuzzy cloth-covered metal folding chair in under the tent surrounded by M’s family.
My friend’s father: we drove an hour to pay our respects at the memorial. There was almost no one there, so we spoke for a few minutes with her and her mother and went back home. It felt strange for there to be so few people based on my family experiences – I think most of her family attended the service itself instead.
My godfather: we knew he was dying – he had been going downhill for months and I got the call right before Christmasto come say goodbye. Hospice had set him up at home for pain managment and his daughters were there taking care of him. He cried and I cried and I think we both knew it was the last time we would speak. He saw the kids and I held his hand until he needed another dose of morphine and went back to sleep. I was in the mall making Christmas returns the next week when my mom called to tell me he had passed. I cried, and I cried again at the funeral, but of all of them, he’s the one I felt like I got right. We got to say goodbye and I know he died knowing that I loved him. We were almost late to the service, driving down with the kids that morning. But I got to see him one last time – even though he didn’t look like himself at all. After the funeral, my aunt’s church hosted a memorial dinner for the family – we all sat there, eating and reminiscing, tired, sad, but at peace.
My husband’s grandmother: she died with my husband and kids in the house. She had been in decline for a year, and they had gone for a visit, and she had a stroke trying to get out of bed to see the kids. He called me and I had to go outside my office and call some of his family to let them know. The memorial and the funeral were fine – I sat in the back of the funeral hall so that I could nurse the baby during the service, and his aunts sheperded the big kids up to say their goodbyes. The graveside was hot (again, Alabama) and not – rushed, exactly – but no one wanted to linger. We got sucked into helping clean out her house and scan photos because we lived closest so we got a front-row seat to watch all of my husband’s aunts and uncles bicker over money and the stuff she left behind. I remain so glad that she had had a reverse mortgage and the bank owned the house, because otherwise I think they would have destroyed their relationships over it.
My mother’s mother: I knew she was dying, but I couldn’t bring myself to go see her in the hospital. My older kids had visited her while they stayed with my mom that summer, so she got to see them, but I just … couldn’t. I didn’t want to see her that way, and I feel guilty because I *should* have taken that trip, but I had been surrounded by so much death in the last few years, I just couldn’t handle it. My mom and her sisters were with her when she passed. She chose to take off her oxygen mask and was with them, talking and lucid until she went to sleep for the last time. The fact that it was her *choice* makes me so happy and proud for her – she didn’t die in pain, or suffer, and she was surrounded by people who loved her. She was buried in the dress my mom wore to our wedding; my mom called to warn me ahead of time so that I wouldn’t be freaked out. Again, she didn’t look like herself – the hair wasn’t quite right, too much makeup, and the stillness. It was like looking at a poorly drawn caricature of her. My mom’s pastor performed the service and pronounced her name wrong, and she was buried at a church I don’t think she attended, and that I doubt I could find again without asking my mom for directions. But it was obviously her family plot, as she was surrounded by headstones bearing her maiden name. We ate the funeral supper together as a family at her trailer even though she had lived with my parents for much of the previous year. My brother didn’t attend the funeral, which still irritates me, but fits with his general pattern of familial avoidance. My aunt who is incarcerated was allowed to come visit the funeral home alone, separate from the rest of the family. That makes me so sad, that the choices she has made in life prevented her from being able to grieve with the rest of us. A few weeks later, after they had processed her home, my mom brought me a gallon zip lock bag she had filled with memorabilia from my life – baby pictures, graduation announcements, wedding program, birth announcements from my kids. It makes me feel closer to her, even though we weren’t that close in life.
So which one had the most impact? All of them, and none of them. I think each of them taught me something – that the *person* is not the body, that I want to avoid suffering, that the stuff we leave behind is the least important, that I am awful at managing my own sadness in the face of someone who is dying, that family togetherness in grief is a balm, not to pre-pay for a funeral service but to have the financial means available if you can, that death doesn’t mean that you’ll ever stop loving or missing the person who was, that it’s important for kids to be able to say their own goodbyes. All those have factored into my thoughts on what I want, and what I want to plan for my own eventual demise.