Family Fun At The Funeral Home

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Disease, war, acts of nature, apocalyptic happenings... Kim Jong-un ... it’s amazing any of us live past 50. Throw in unpredictable accidents and all the other “unusual,” “freaky,” “weird,” “bizarre,” “funny,” and “iconic,” ways to die, and it’s statistically astounding that folks survive past 20. 

With each passing year, the potential means of my personal demise dwindles and death by old age seems viable, particularly since some sources define “old age” as being over 70 (ouch...).

Somehow, my 91.5-year-old mother has gingerly sidestepped virtually every means of death except for old age. I don’t dwell on it, but the question of specifically how she will die often pops into my head... hopefully it will be while sleeping peacefully on the couch, watching her best buddies over at MSNBC, with a just-eaten plate of baked haddock in her lap.

For practical reasons, it’s important I hold the eventuality of Mom’s death in the forefront of my temporal lobe... I have unwittingly become her defacto caretaker, ergo, the family member voted most likely to handle the details of her life – and death. Bluntly said, it will be my job to make sure Mom gets to her final resting place and to ensure all interested parties are duly notified.

To help me achieve this task, Mom keeps a “pink notebook” containing all the important details of her life and death. It’s an on-going monologue full of edits, additions, and deletions. The quality and content of her binder changes with shifts in her life circumstances and revisions of her personal wishes. End-of-life entities (funeral homes) recommend keeping such a notebook to lighten the load of the living. I for one, am grateful that Mom has taken some of the guesswork out of my part in her future farewell fanfare.

Recently, my sister and mother and I paid a visit to our local funeral home. The last time I’d been there as a client was when my father died fifteen years ago. The Undertaker (now called Funeral Director) who planned Pop’s memorial service was an older gentleman who probably went to high school with him. The meeting was a somber occasion held in the flowered hall of the funeral parlor... We spoke in hushed tones and exited the meeting with a black folder embossed with gold writing.... very funeral-esque.

Our meeting for Mom’s service had a decidedly different feel. An attractive young woman named Karen escorted us to a cheery living room where we sat in a friendly conversational circle; my sister and I with our pads of paper, Karen with her trusty clipboard, and Mom with checkbook in hand. Each of us had a different agenda... Mom was poised for socializing and story-telling... My sister was there to make sure the numbers worked (evidenced in her don’t-mess-with-me face)... And me? I was there as a self-appointed personal interpreter for Mom, with the goal of ensuring no advantage was taken of my 91-year-old, chatty, mother.

My first surprise was that Karen didn’t actually work for the funeral home, but rather for a large death processing conglomerate. After the niceties, we sat back and Karen presented her pitch.

Within 10 minutes, I realized we were knee deep in a negotiation. Words like “contract”, “terms”, “irrevocable”, “prepaid”, “insurance” and “payment” dotted the many pages of paper in Karen’s seafoam green folder. I had naively anticipated a laid-back conversation about flowers and visiting hours and was thus unprepared to take part in what was clearly a detailed business transaction.

Truth be told, I glossed over and was thinking about that evening’s dinner plans, when I heard Karen say, “I just need your signature here Mrs. C”.

I awoke from my brief reverie and resumed my interpretive duties; “Whoooaaa...  Let me take a look at that before you sign, Mom...”

Karen dominated the deal. Scanning the multi-page contract, I realized I was out of my league. As a Realtor, I deal with contracts, numbers, negotiations, and other humans on a daily basis. That being said, when anything with the word “insurance” comes up, I always defer to those more informed.  

Insurance is my personal nemesis... I don’t trust it... I don’t get it... and I don’t want to need it... It’s one of the few things in life I’ve resigned myself to never understanding, and to being ok with that. The word “premium” repeatedly popped up in Karen’s paperwork – meaning here, a scheduled payment vs. "top shelf" quality. Ultimately, Mom signed a new life insurance policy to cover the end of her life.

The tip of the day was that funerals are very expensive. You can rent a casket for $1,000, or you can buy “the Classic Gold” for $10,000 (with multiple variations in between). The funeral home provides a laundry list of ancillary services and products as well: embalming, dressing the deceased, body transference, facility use, guest books, limousines, prayer cards... the list goes on. In the end, an OBC (outer body container) funeral can cost upwards of $20,000. Thankfully, our family prides itself on “getting small” when it comes to death, and cremation makes eternal love in the “family plot” possible. 

I kept a close eye on Mom’s demeanor throughout Karen's presentation; her expansive grin conveying complete satisfaction with her preplanned funeral arrangements. Mom was glad to have some "loose ends" tied up and to have an idea of what she'll be seeing when she looks down from up above. 

Watching Mom and Karen have a happy post-negotiation chat, I was reminded how lucky I am that my mother is who she is... a 91-year-old woman nearing the end of her life, but having a positive outlook and attitude, even about her own death. Her lack of fear or disdain made a potentially morbid topic feel like a casual conversation amongst friends.

Just when I think I’ve learned all I can from Mom, she offers up yet another lesson in the art of aging gracefully... She models kindness in the midst of a business transaction... patience with her somewhat impatient children... and positivity in the face of a rightfully dour situation. My 91-year-old mother exudes the kind of inner peace that comes from a job well done, and a life well lived.

Emily Gaffney