On Funerals

Last night, while channel-surfing, I caught part of an interesting film on PBS last night about home funerals. What caught my attention at first was a scene of an open, occupied coffin — obviously homemade — being carried into someone’s living room. The occupant was obviously a real person, and obviously not acting. Neither were the mourners. This struck me as an interesting bit of cinema, considering that many people are uncomfortable with funeral photography, much less funeral cinematography.

A later scene showed a ranch family building Grandpa’s coffin, with Grandpa sitting nearby in his wheelchair. Various brands were burned into the outside of the coffin: children’s initials, Grandpa’s initials and brand. Grandpa even helped brand the coffin, with some assistance. There were actually a few scenes where the viewer got to meet Grandpa and his family, which made his own home funeral even more poignant later on in the film.

Aaron has mentioned details here and there about how he’d like to be remembered at his death. It’s not nearly as uncomfortable a subject as I would have expected; probably because we’re young enough that our own mortality doesn’t quite hit home yet. So, it’s easy to accept his wishes, while still contemplating my own.

Even though I’m comfortable talking about funerary rites with my husband, it’s still a little uncomfortable to contemplate discussing his wishes with everyone. It still seems a little private, a little personal. It shouldn’t, though. Should it?

He’s told me in no uncertain terms that he wants to be cremated, and he doesn’t want his remains to be buried or stored or kept anywhere. He doesn’t like the thought of people mourning over his physical remains; he’d rather people remember him as he was. I’ll do that for him, and I’ll respect his wishes, though I’m not sure I want the same for myself. The genealogist in me can’t quite come to terms with not having some sort of marker, proclaiming the dates I was on this earth.

It’s funny that I can’t let go of that, though, especially considering that I tend to think of cemeteries as U-Stor-Its for dead people. We need somewhere to keep old Aunt Myrtle… so we set aside a plot of real estate, and stick her with all the other dead people. It’s not like the old days, where she’d be buried on the family homestead, in a piece of earth that had actually meant something to her while she was alive. Now, the living just find a quasi-local place with an open spot for the dead. Given that, I think I’d rather be passed down through my family in an urn or something. Use my ashes slowly over time in some sort of secular ceremony. Pass the urn around and share your favorite memories of me. Put me in your tea. Something, anything, but don’t just stick me in storage where no one will remember or care in a few decades.

Cremation wasn’t something I’d even considered until I met Aaron. I’ve always known that I didn’t want people looking at my corpse, though. It’s uncomfortable for me, although it’s traditionally how American funerals are done. I much preferred Memaw’s service: closed-casket, with a photo of Memaw in her mid-40s on an easel by the coffin. People who only knew her in her old age saw the picture and said, “She was so beautiful,” and people who hadn’t seen her in several years didn’t need to see how her lung cancer had physically changed her appearance.

I’m not even sure how I feel about the traditional funeral service. I think I’d much rather have a private family gathering for the somber part, then have more of a wake for everyone else. Make it a party. Remember who I was. Tell funny stories. Pull out the photo albums. Eat. Play some music. But try not to be too depressed. Enjoy and share the memories you’ve got, ’cause there won’t be any new ones.

Maybe I’m too irreverent about the whole thing. I guess that’s just how I’ve become in my adulthood. Take all this with a grain of salt, too; funerals are meant for the living, not the dead, and it’s not like I’ll be around to make my decisions stick.