Saturday, February 25, 2006

Six Feet Under -- Or Not

The recent death of a friend's neighbor under circumstances of an unusually difficult nature has led to a vigorous discussion among a group of women over funeral practices and the advisability of including children therein.

I voiced the opinion that the funeral process is one of those natural life cycle things and that I saw no reason to exclude children. Another woman suggested that the process is anything but natural, to which I could only respond that, while she is correct (Hey! I watched every episode of Six Feet Under! No embalming or open caskets for me!), it is "culturally" natural for many people and part of the process of supporting them in their bereavement.

Like all of our views, mine is formed by my own life experience. When my mother and baby brother were killed in a car accident, there was no thought of me or my surviving brother attending the funeral; we were in the hospital in serious condition. However, there was also no thought of informing us about the events at hand, a decision that left me confused and resentful. I did learn, many years later, that my mother was buried with my brother in her arms, and that her obstetrician had had a magnificent bouqet of flowers delivered, the card saying, "To a lovely mother." And, of course, I learned that when young people die, the tsuanmi of grief is so overpowering that no one functions rationally for decades. Maybe forever. It does not occur to the adults that the small children might be wondering, "Where exactly is my mommy?"

For years afterward the adults in the family sought to protect the children from the repercussions of death: family members, friends, pets. It was, of course, with the pets that we finally grasped what was rightfully ours: the privilege of burying one of many dogs and cats to lie in the small country cemetery up the road, where gravestones marked the remains of family members and a small white cross carried a child's hand-painted letters: Best Dog In The World.

When my stepmother died last spring, my father expressed his usual revulsion toward the practice of an open casket viewing. That was his third experience in burying a wife, and he knew his preferences. This time, I asked him what she would have wanted. We also discussed the preferences of her family and ended up with a compromise: an open casket for family members for half an hour before the visitation opened to the public. That didn't satisfy everyone; one young relative even voiced his opinions for all to hear when he spoke during the post-funeral graveside service.

If I have learned anything from the five funerals I have attended in the past year, it is that I need to write my wishes down, sooner rather than later. They aren't too complicated: sprinkle me in Lake Chautauqua, off the coast of St. Augustine, and on Mount Pisgah. Put up a monument of an angel with BIG WINGS (think Angels in America) where I walk, preferably a strikingly carved glass one that will be as much a gift in the sunlight to the cemetery walkers and runners as is the stained glass bonsai tree monument already there. I have some specific music requests -- I do like a formal church service with major, major music. I like it when people go out in style -- my dad's minimalistic views are not mine.
On the other hand, I don't have the slightest desire for my remains to be displayed for a public viewing. A lot of people say that the presence of the body cements the finality of death for those left behind. I can't discount that for others, but it's not been my experience. I am very much aware that dead is dead. On the other hand, my grandfather has been gone for 21 years and often seems present to me, as does my stepmother who died last year. I never saw my grandfather's body; I held my stepmother's hand as she died and sat with her for about an hour afterward. Not because her body was there, but because we were both caught in some magical and windy place between here and there. The body itself, for all the attention we lavish on ours while we live, turns out to be rather insignificant in the end. The spirit moves, even in a cramped and poorly designed hospital room.

The most moving service I've attended in the past year was for a man about my age who was a stained glass artist. His company had restored all the glass in the magnificent church where his memorial service was held and the timing was perfect, with the mid-afternoon sunlight streaming through one of the major side windows. Everything about the service reflected a perfect balance of the family's mixture of sorrow over one gone far too soon and relief that his extreme suffering had ended in combination with their celebration of the exquisitely triumphal beauty of his life's work.
It's very difficult to find a way to celebrate a person's life in the short hour or so usually allotted to a funeral or memorial service and simultaneously attend to the needs and preferencees of all the mourners. One of the reasons I liked that memorial last October was the way in which it encompassed grief and celebration in balance. We tend to find ourselves at "Celebrations of Life" these days and, while laughter and music and honoring of lives well-lived are all important, the terrible grief that accompanies them should be acknowledged as well. We live in a culture in which people are often staggered by their sense of loss and disorientation months after someone's departure; we need to remind ourselves at the memorial or funeral service that grief is for a lifetime. The alteration of the fabric of our lives is permanent, regardless of how we accomodate ourselves to it, and it is ludicrous to pretend otherwise.


Paula said...

Holy cow, you must have just posted this--my clock says 9:57. Am I the first to find this...and what does THAT mean. I want to write at least three different comments, and I'm thinking I should do a blog entry of my own. This is a LOT to think on, though, for everyone, and a delicious entry. If I say more, I'll come back and say it later...except that the music at my Irish wake WILL begin and end with Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky and everybody there WILL get drunk and WILL both laugh and cry!

Paul said...

I'd remember you when I was late-season fishing and saw a gannett soar overhead, and I'd choke back tears even though we've never really met. How would you remember me?

Paula said...

(Dang, that single man's sump'in, ain't he?)

emmapeelDallas said...

This is a great and very thought provoking post. One of my favorite films of all time is Rene Clement's Forbidden Games, which is a brilliant depiction of how children, left to their own devices, deal with death (it won the academy award for Best Foreign Film of 1952). If you haven't seen it, I recommend it, Criterion's released it on DVD.


Jessica said...

If there is one thing of my Faith I wish I could impart to others, it is that death is not to be feared, it is but just one more doorway. I too think the Irish had the right idea...when I pass, I would rather people celebrate what I accomplished while I was here than mourn that I have moved on. But then, burial itself baffles me...but then thats a subject for a whole blog entry of my own!

DesLily said...

it is as you said, a very individual thing, your choices made up from your own experiences. I was 10 when my Nana died. They made me go to the funeral. I remember not wanting to go to the casket but by prodding and talking made me see her. I also remember my last view of Nana.. it was of my mother leaning over the casket and kissing her goodbye.
Then my mother took us in the car for a long ride.. she needed to just drive. I fell asleep in the back of the car as always since i got motion sick. When i woke i remember leaning to the front of the car and asking my mother if we were on our way to see Nana. I had blanked out the whole funeral of that day.

Yes, it is very much an individual experience ... and we can only choose what we want by them.

Gannet Girl said...

I am so glad you commented, deslily. I deeply appreciate other perspectives. It seems that a great many people have dreadful childhood memories of being forced to walk up to the casket of a loved one or othwerwise being compelled to participate in rituals they found oppressive.

DesLily said...

Hi again.. well, after that experience my whole outlook was that i hate funerals. I go if I HAVE TO but I found I do better remembering the loved one as I last saw them alive..and hopefully laughing.

Paula said...

I keep coming back to check the discussion here, and appreciate your conversation with Deslily (whom I adore). I'm 41 years old and have never laid eyes on a dead body. The few funerals I've been to have been closed-casket, and I've never been to a wake where the body was displayed. I understood since a very young child that my parents wanted to be cremated; they hated wakes, thought they were a morbid practice, and went only occasionally if family or social custom deemed it necessary. (My dad attended his dad's wake, but stood in the back of the room--and though he gave us kids a choice, we were encouraged not to go. I chose not to.)

As to the Irish wake I want, I knew I might be mis-using the word. I'm with my parents on the cremation thing. But I want the party. I want the community. I want the social gathering of love and mourning and celebration. I HAVE been to one or two of those, including my grandfather's after-funeral party, which equates in my mind with this kind of wake. I remember the ways everyone handled thier grief, and the way that every style was accepted, even when someone said or did something stupid. Community grief seems to me a wonderful process.

Paula said...

Wrote my own entry. I won't bother your blog anymore. :)

Judith HeartSong said...

I would just want there to be a REALLY good party when I go.

Lisa C. said...

Robin, check out the NY Times book review today. There is a review of a book called "Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve."

Gannet Girl said...

Looks like Ms. Gilbert and I are on the same page -- at least with respect to a critique of "celebrations of life" and the unwieldy concept of "closure."

Sigh. If only I had written this in the form of a book reviewed in the Times!

dee said...

I just got the tapes of Six Feet Under's first season. I've seen parts of a couple of episodes and got intrigued by the quirky characters in it.
It would be nice to have a party after a funeral. It will relieve everybody's stress and will probably make the dearly departed happy.

LightYears2Venus said...

I like it when people go out in style, too--was moved by the music and oratory at Coretta King's funeral. When my mom died 15 years ago I hadn't been to many funerals and didn't have a clue; would do it much differently now. Does help to have experienced more memorials and tuck away ideas for oneself/loved ones. Agree with balancing celebration of life with acknowledging grief; also need do a better job as a society with support afterward. I think our culture IS getting better with things like that, but still uncomfortable. We always hold up 'primitive' cultures as being better at life cycle stuff, not so sanitized, but I wonder. It's too bad land is getting scarce for cemetaries in some areas. They're such wonderful links to our own ancestors and our history. I, too, want my cremains scattered, but would also like part of them to be buried with a gravestone in a grassy glen beside my husband's. But certainly not in a wall with safety-deposit-type boxes!
Loving the PEI entries after this.

Lisa :-] said...

Grief does last a lifetime, but since death is part of life, we all walk with some measure of grief. People hold "Celebrations of Life" because they want to step off into their new lives without a loved one,on a positive note... smile through the tears. I think that's a good thing.

As far as having open-casket visitations or funerals, I think thy are a bit creepy. I hated it that my brother-in-law insisted my sister's casket be open. She had been horribly ill and looked awful. But it helped him. He wasn't ready to let her go...he couldn't keep his hands off her.

We had an open casket at my Dad's funeral...again, more for my mother than anything. At least Dad looked peaceful, not ravaged like my sister did. Still, I think it's a bizarre ritual, and I will forbid it when I go.

ckays1967 said...

I feel like a veteran of funerals...been to so many I stopped counting. Really.

Held my fiancee's hand as he died and met his angels, literally.

That being said I want to burned and spread in the ocean then somebody better throw a patry. Talk about the good times and if anyone brings up the bad things I did someone else better slug 'em.

Wonderful post and commentary.

Wenda said...

I was interrupted the first time I began to read this post yet it has stayed in my mind ever since with a longing to return here, not to comment on funeral or celebration of life preferences, and not just to say that I agree that "grief is for a lifetime," and "[t]he alteration of the fabric of our lives is permanent, regardless of how we accomodate ourselves to it, and it is ludicrous to pretend otherwise."

What really brought me back here were your words,"I learned that when young people die, the tsuanmi of grief is so overpowering that no one functions rationally for decades," and an image that has not yet faded of a young and seriously injured you and your surviving brother missing your mother who was not able to be there to comfort you.

I am so sorry for all you lost.