Like chefs judged meals, we judged funerals

Death is the one grown-up thing I am actually good at, oddly enough.  Another find on my computer:

On Dying

              The last funeral I attended was for Deanna, an elderly woman I was a caretaker for as she lost her battle with cancer.  As I stood peering down at her open casket, my best friend Gigi—who also cared for Deanna in her final days, gripping my hand at my side, I heard my mother whisper to a neighbor “Terrible embalming job.  Look at her mouth!”  I turned slowly to look at my mother, who was standing to my right, my eyes wide as I took a sharp intake of breath.

                “Oh, honey.  I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching out to touch my shoulder.  She turned back to the neighbor.  “It’s terrible, but I can’t help it.”  My mother was the daughter of a mortician.  I knew she couldn’t help it, because if I wouldn’t have been so wrecked with grief, I would have been participating in the conversation.  We judged.  We judged embalming jobs, casket choices, what the deceased were wearing, how they did their hair, the services, music, and quality of the hearses.  Like chefs judged others’ meals, we judged funerals. 

                My grandfather lived about the funeral home he once owned.  Walking through the basement, we’d pass the dead bodies on gurneys or in caskets.  We liked to look at their socks.  The medal of honor goes to a small, blue haired old woman wearing rainbow striped toe socks. 

                This was my second funeral in ten weeks, fourth funeral since fall and would round out to an even seven deaths in the course of twelve months.  They happened in threes and almost always during midterms or finals.  When my uncle and old soccer coach died within two weeks of each other, I tiptoed around waiting for the third.  When Health Ledger died suddenly, I quickly counted him as my third and declared that chapter closed. 

                Shortly after turning 22, I sat down at my computer one day to write my last will and testament.  I had just started working for a Foundation in Washington DC that not only promised long hours for very little pay, but as I learned upon my first day of training, life insurance— a whole $10,000 dollars.  I laughed at first as I realized how little I was worth to my new employers and then looked blankly at the line marked “recipient”.  I got to choose who got the money, which I found even more amusing. 

                I considered for a moment before filling my best friend Louisa’s first and last name on the line.  I could break it up into percentages.  Next to her name I wrote 75%, allotting my mother the rest to cover the cost of my funeral, figuring my uncle Danny—who took over the family funeral home from my grandfather—would allow for a sizable family discount.  Louisa had enough money in student loans to buy a very expensive car.  I figured she could pay off a small chunk and buy herself a very nice pair of shoes.  This way she could remember me fondly as she pursued her desired career path of academia and as she tramped down the streets of Chicago in what would undoubtedly be an impossibly high pair of black stilettos or a new pair of Frye boots. 

                I wondered frequently about my impending death.  More so then any other 22 year old girl I had met without any immediately life threatening illness or impairments.  I blamed it on my family.  My grandfather and handful of my mother’s cousins were funeral directors boasting three Dougherty Family Funeral Homes throughout the state of Minnesota.  After my uncle took over the family business, my grandfather sold him the family farm and my grandparents moved into the large, remodeled apartment on top of the funeral home.  As a child, when we told our friends we were going to visit our grandparents at the funeral home, they stared at us in horror that we could be so casual about our beloved Papa or Grandma’s deaths.  They didn’t realize that was the location for holiday dinners.

                As children, my cousins and I used to traipse around the funeral home after business hours playing roller hockey in the chapels and daring each other to climb into the caskets in the show room.  During wakes, my grandmother would hush us as we ran around their apartment as to not disrupt the events one floor below us.  If we held our ear to the beige carpet underneath the coffee table in the living room, we could overhear the sentiments of the decease’s loved ones.   With all of this, it was undoubtedly that my cousins and I formed an odd fascination and respect for death.

                I wondered as I sat cross-legged on my friend’s futon staring at the blank document screen on my computer, what was it that I wanted when I died?  I had no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t be for a very long time, but if anything, I could never be accused of not being organized.  I wondered, as most people did I assumed, who would come to my funeral?  What would my mother, bless her heart, choose to be sung at my funeral if I died at a young age?  At 22, I had lived across the United States—raised in Minnesota, spent my summers during high school in Santa Rosa, California, college in Chicago, seven months in Washington DC.   Would my friends fly to Minnesota?  How would they even find out that I perished- most likely in a freak accident at my age?  They were thoughts that consumed me for an entire day at least once a month.  It was worse when actual people in my life had died in that time period.  And I say actual people because I made a habit of reading the obituaries for my local Minneapolis newspaper online once a week to make sure no one I knew, even remotely, had passed away.   A ridiculous habit, I will admit, but something that I felt I could at least blame on my family.  I still remember sitting across the kitchen table at my mother’s one morning in high school, the newspaper flapped open in my lap as we sipped our coffee and finished off breakfast stating, “Oh wow, a 24 year old died in a car accident in Maplewood”.  She shook out the Business Section and laughed replying, “oh god, sweetheart, you are so much like me”. 

                There was something about death that seemed to final to me.  Obviously, these people were never coming back—whether it be the day Kurt Vonnegut died or my own grandmother.  Final, finite, finis, the end. 

                I started to jot down a list of requests.  In my young life, I had yet to master the art of walking in high heels—despite my lovely collection, so bury me in my scuffed brown Frye boots and that turquoise dress I wore to my college graduation.  If the undertaker tries to blow-dry my hair, it will get all frizzy, so let it air dry and use a booby-pin to clip the hair back on the left side of my head.  My preferred make-up routine is mascara and Chapstick.  My favorite song of all time was “I Sing the Body Electric” from the old movie Fame.  I would like that to play as my casket leaves the church on the way to my burial and under no circumstances can it be wheeled—you all must carry my dead weight while doing a little dance. 

                When my cousin died, they buried him wearing a flannel shirt and khakis, a pack of his favored cigarette brand—Camel Lights— on his chest and a truck made out of Legos by his two year old son at his side.  I felt that I needed entertainment beyond the veil and would like to request a pack of Parliament Lights, a bottle of Jack Daniels and my new Ray Ban sunglasses.  A book of something light and my Ipod would also be nice—for at no matter what phase in life, everyone needs theme music. 

                I wondered who would take my things.  My friend Kate, whose couch I was still sitting on, came home as I was writing down my ideas and demanded that she inherit my journals.  “They’ll be hilarious to read as I sob because I miss you so much,” she said. 

                “Holy shit,” I replied, “no one should know what I wrote in those things.”

                “We have the same size feet,” she replied, “so I get your shoes at least and don’t expect me to give back your trunk”.  She had agreed to store my old fashion steamer trunk a year earlier while I was in Europe and had yet to return it. 

                I wrote down her requests, left her and Louisa to fight over my clothes and my books to my father.  My two younger brothers could split what little I would have in my bank account and Tara could get my snowboard.  My mother my artwork and frequent flyer miles, my roommates my furniture.  My American Girl Dolls, stored in my mother’s basement since I was a child, could be given to Sage, the four year old I had nannied for most recently. 

                I considered the mass of people that I had adopted into my life during my short years: family, friends, neighbors, roommates, teammates, extended family I considered immediate, friend’s parents, former employers.  I had expanded my heart to allow each and every person into it, but with that, the knowledge of their inevitable death consumed me.  My mother was one of twelve children, my father one of three—that alone amassed to twenty-eight funerals for my aunts and uncles in the next fifty years. 

                It seemed to me as of late that death was frequent.  A handful of celebrities had died in quick succession at the start of summer—my childhood celebrity crush Patrick Swayze (circa Footloose, not Roadhouse) included.  My friend from Washington DC, “Other” Rachel, had recently learned her father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  A couple of months later, as her dad laid in hospice care, her mother suffered a terrible stroke that left her unable to speak.  As she flew home for Christmas, her parents were in a shared room in a Boston hospital.  Rachel faced the disaster and inevitable death of her parents with passionate denial, choosing to pretend that everything was fine, as opposed to dealing with her own personal and family issues.  She gave the counter of everything I tried to not do when faced with grief. 

                Rachel’s situation launched a series of conversations among our group of friends—almost entirely behind her back of course, about how we individually had dealt with similar situations in the past and how we envisioned our family role if the same situation—heaven forbid—were to ever befall our own families.  Many of us couldn’t imagine the sudden loss of faith that Rachel was feeling in the world, but her hands-off approach to the situation, refusal to talk about her feelings or even answer her family’s phone calls, left us all stunned.  I considered my own situation.  Not many people had attended funerals with the frequency I had, nor spent their childhoods playing in funeral home parking lots, judging embalming jobs or washing the Cadillac hearses as a favor to our grandfather.  Despite my knowledge that I was for lack of a better word jaded to death, meaning that it wasn’t a infrequent occurrence in my life—whether it be a funeral I attended or simply listened to with my ear to the floor, I knew my process of grieving was pro-active.  I didn’t do denial, I did problem solving.  Making the phone calls, dropping off casseroles, mail cards, offer favors, pass along information, vacuuming the house etc.  

                When my new roommate, Risa, came home from work in early December and said her grandmother had passed away after a long downturn due to Alzheimer’s, the other roommate Megan and I first consoled her and then regaled her with stories of our own family bouts with the disease.  My great-grandmother threw her shoes at the nurses; Meghan’s grandmother used to run away, shouting about how the “damn Italians” ran her family store out of business.  One of my cousins, Thomas Bretto, passed away suddenly when I was in the eighth grade.  I was late getting to the wake, arriving after our family and many friends had moved from the chapel to my grandparent’s apartment for dinner.  At 13, I was stunned that my cousin’s peers sat in a circle in the living room, beers in hand laughing while telling stories about Thomas.  I thought it was a time to grieve, to be silent and reflect, but learned that day that grieving should be a celebration of the life, in addition to a chance to mourn it. 

                Dying, death and then grief cycle through people in different ways.  The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle states that we begin with denial, move to anger, then bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.  Within that cycle develops new habits, tradition and routines.   My family tends to eat, drink and tell stories.  In the summertime, we participate in a family ritual known as commandoing—pencil diving off of a motor boat going full speed in honor of the deceased.   My grandfather recently turned 93 years old.  As the only surviving husband from him and my grandmother’s peer group, he takes the widowers out on dates.  My aunts and uncles throw a party every year on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. Gigi and I go on “Deanna Dates” having lunch at her favorite restaurant Lucia’s in Minneapolis before visiting her headstone. 

                People have many things to live for, goals to obtain.  My grandfather goes fishing in Canada every September.  We joked during the summer months that trip alone would keep him alive through the fall.  When the trip came and went this year, we set a new goal for him to reach—the birth of a new great-grandchild due in late November, the last Christmas on the family farm before it sold, a wedding.  I know my mother will live a long life, if only to peer down at my first child on the day of her birth and say to me, “what a beautiful baby, I hope she is just like you” and then wait by the phone to field my hysterical phone calls with a sense of satisfaction.

                People say that life is short—but life is as long as you can stretch it.  Some days will be fair, some great and some a disappointment but allow for each day to be stupendous in its own individual way.  We make aspirations, obtain them and then set new ones.  When I go, whether it be in my thirties or my nineties, I hope it is swift and dignified enough to allow me an open casket.  I pray my parents are not alive—as no one should have to bury a child, that there are people in attendance to confess my secrets, retell my mishaps and most importantly— float the keg. 


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