This Christmas Eve saw me sitting on the couch beside my mother-in-law with laptop open, planning her funeral. She lives in Ohio, has pancreatic cancer, and just moved to an Assisted Living residence. We stayed in her house and brought her back to visit.
The decision for turkey or ham had been made. After some worried conferring, my mother-in-law had agreed to let me buy whichever was still available in the local grocery store. The turkey roasting filled the house with that nice smell as well as a good amount of smoke, unfortunately. We chatted amidst the whirr of the range hood fan.
Now I opened for her a series of questions posed by the online pre-planning form we found on her chosen funeral home’s website. Remarkably, she retrieved quickly from memory the names of cities her parents had been born in.
Cremation or burial? Cremation. “It seems cleaner.”
Religion? She paused. I offered, “You could say, ‘Protestant,’ ‘Evangelical,’ or ‘Christian.’ She’d gone to church for most of her life.
“Um.” I knew that pause. She’d told me about her parting of ways with her local church recently. I offered, “How about I write, ‘Open’”?
“Yes, that’s good.”
Like her answer to the religion question, she prefers some innovative choices for her funeral. I had to use the ‘Notes’ section to describe them.
She’d like her funeral to be outside, in a pavilion at the lake. If the weather doesn’t allow it, she’d like a gathering in one of the funeral home’s big rooms. She doesn’t want a service with a liturgy nor clergy to officiate. She’d like friends from different parts of her life to speak along with some family. I offered that the funeral home may have a Celebrant as we do, a non-religious Master of Ceremonies, who could coordinate Words of Remembrance at a Celebration of Life. She liked that idea.
“Do you want your cremated remains to be present, in an urn?” “I don’t think so.” Often when cremation is chosen but the remains are not to be present, the family puts a nice 8x10” framed picture and some flowers on an altar-like table, while a DVD of photos of your life play on a TV in the room. I know it’s possible to be cremated after your funeral that you are present for in a casket, possibly a rental casket. Whether it’s a picture and DVD, an urn of your cremated remains or your body lying in a casket, being there helps others connect and say goodbye.
“Maybe you should consult with your three children on this decision,” I offered. “Some children say, ‘Whatever you want Mom,’ but another could say that a photo is not enough, and another may say the grandkids may want to say goodbye to your body and pat your hand. Maybe we could leave that big topic up to the ones saying goodbye?” She nodded. “But a private viewing, if any.” I agreed, adding “I’ll let them know and you can talk about it with them.”
My mother-in-law has led a very active retired life in her small town for the last twenty-five years. “I’m the busiest person I know,” she quipped to me recently. It will be interesting to hear the various speakers at her Celebration of Life. We made a list of all the groups to contact to invite: the Choral Society, the Library, her Philosophy discussion group, her Bridge group, the Soup Kitchen, and more. She taught High School English, and her late husband taught Elementary school, so many in the small town know her. And her family is wider than I know, as she mentions cousins I’ve never heard of.
In helping her pre-plan her funeral, I was comforted that she was making the decisions. Her memory has wavered lately, bringing this very competent lady down the ladder of independence. As we discussed the options for her funeral, her son and grandchildren were playing a card game at the kitchen counter. She often smiled over at them, breaking her attention to follow the game.
That’s life. Death, and decline, are rarely the black holes our imagination fears them to be. Like pre-planning your funeral as the turkey cooks, choosing how you will be remembered when you die can be part of the life you lead.