Monday, September 24, 2007

The Last Party

When I first caught a glimpse of my dead mother in her casket, I let out an audible gasp.

It wasn't the shock of seeing her lifeless form or the horror of viewing her bloated body that prompted the gasp. It was the shapeless, polyester, leopard-print smock.

It was the type of tasteless, bargain-basement garment that my mother wouldn't have been caught dead in. Who says the grim reaper doesn't have an ironic sense of humor?

After my careful orchestration of our mother's funeral, I couldn't believe that this had happened. But the tasteful ensemble I selected for her no longer fit her puffed-up body; the funeral parlor did a last-minute switcheroo.

I vowed there and then that the same fiasco wouldn't happen at my own funeral. Of course, I'll skirt the whole "What do I wear to my own funeral" issue because I opted years ago for cremation. But I figured that there were other details that I didn't want to leave to chance or guesses made by emotionally distraught loved ones.

Six years ago, I started fantasizing about my own final party: Invitations. Location. Guest list. Music. Food. Mood.

After I received my cancer diagnosis in late January, my plans throttled into high gear. While driving to San Diego for a business meeting in February, I couldn't stop thinking about the details. But I learned pretty quickly that my friends and family did not find this amusing. I viewed my planning as a fun diversion; they saw it as a morbid obsession and cut me off immediately.

When we vacationed with friends in Hawaii in February, I went on a flight of fancy about my funeral plans while we sipped mai tais and watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. To my surprise, they not only listened but chimed in with their own plans and jokes. ". . . wants to be cremated and have his ashes scattered across the ocean, but I told him we could save time and money by just flushing them down the toilet." I was having the time of my life while talking about death.

I haven't given death or my final service much thought since then because I've been too busy enjoying life. But yesterday during lunch with two friends, the topic came up. "I like to plan and control everything in advance," my young, healthy friend admitted. "Why shouldn't I plan this too?" "Yes! People don't understand that I'm not being morbid when I do this," I chimed in.

It's just that I don't want to end up with the equivalent of a leopard-print jacket at the end of my life.

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Do any of you think about this? What are the details? What would be your nightmare equivalent of a polyester jacket?


Margaret Finnegan said...

I think different things. I think about my kids, ages nine and eleven. I think: what plans would I make to keep them ok, especially since I have a husband who works very long hours. What about childcare? What about diet? Who will make sure doesnt' exist on sugar. Who will get Elizabeth to her tutor. Who will help her with her homework and help her know that she is smart. She has a learning difference and really needs to be instructed in the right way, especially math. I think about how they would grieve, and what kind of grief counselling they would need. When I think about my mortality I find myself making deals with God. I say things like just ten more years. Just let me get them out of high school. And I pray that nothing will stop me from doing that.

SAMO Calling said...

Okay, with thought over the years, here are my top 3 concerns on this topic. First, I forgot to inform people about my dad's passing and they were upset. I was so embarrassed. There is so much to do - and so little organization.
So I guess trying to keep my list of contacts current would be helpful. I wouldn't care if people chose not to attend anything, but I'd want them to know I've kicked the bucket, at the very least.
Secondly, given the Schaivo fiasco, I'd want to make my life/death choices absolutely clear legally.
Thirdly, I don't want a viewing of a corpse (eliminates the clothing/make-up choices) Make-up in the best cases always looks hideous. Instead, put out my absolute best YOUNG photo, and let me exit "forever young" no matter what my age!
I hope my existence in all it's quirkiness has given my loved ones enough fodder for jokes and laughter that will keep the party going... no dull mourning events for me please.
I don't worry about my child since she's grown and married, but I do have concerns about being around for the new baby, I'd better start making deals like Margaret.

Marco said...

One word: "Plastic" - Mix my ashes up with some polycarbonate material that will end up in airplanes, space ships, expensive sport cars, wind generators - I'll finally get to travel more and generate some electricity to offset CO2. If I'm lucky I'll be included in thousands of advanced Victoria Secret bra or bodice wirings - I'll be happy for a long time! :)

Karen said...

You've got to see death at funeral for a VERY funny take of what can go wrong ...

I'd never really given this morbid subject much thought, but since you've brought the subject up, here are my wishes: cremation and ashes in the ocean -- that's easy, given where we live, and it would eliminate the possiblity that anyone would ever feel guilty for not visiting my burial plot. Also, no church service (I don't believe in an afterlife or any organized religion), but only a party. At the party, I'd ask that there be lots of music -- especially the Rolling Stones played LOUD, and also the Doors, Beatles (sorry Don), Clapton (including Cream), Dylan, and Oingo Boingo (Don could finish the list, he knows what I like). I'd want the party to begin with Oingo Boingo's "No One Lives Forever", I'd hope that EVERYONE would get up and dance to Brown Sugar, and that the party would end with something beautiful on the bagpipes -- I'd trust Piper Robert to pick that out!
Oh, also, at the cremation, I'd want Groucho glasses on my face as I head into the fire. Then it wouldn't matter if I had a nasty looking polyester leopard print smock on!

janet aird said...

Last week I finished writing my will and advanced directive (in case I'm incapacitated), which a friend assures me will stave off death indefinitely. Thank heavens my kids are grown and well on their way. I still haven't been able to get myself to scatter my dog's ashes. Maybe my kids can do both of us at the same time. I'd love them and anyone else who wanted to to go for a little hike in the mountains, have a party and scatter me there.

Piper Robert said...

Leopard print is tasteless? Uh oh.

Karen, I would play a MacCrimmon piobaireachd, 'S Leam Fhein an Gleann (The Glen is Mine). A most appropriate tune.

Paula Johnson said...

I plan to be cremated as well, but I must insist all my friends attend my memorial service.

But there's a twist...when everyone gets to the church, they see a note on the door: PAULA SAYS TAKE THE AFTERNOON OFF! YOU ALL WORK TOO HARD.

Nothing like orchestrating a little enforced leisure from the beyond!

Oh, and this is great timing. On Friday I just finished a website for a cemetery property broker:

Idelle Davidson said...

Margaret, I love what you said. Your children are lucky to have you as their mother. I think about the same things. My boys are in their 20s and I can already see that they've turned out great. So that fills me up inside. But I want to see them get married and have children of their own. I want to be there as their lives unfold. I would so hate to miss that.

Susan Carrier said...

Idelle, you're so right about Margaret.

Hmmmm . . . These parties sound fun. I hope I outlive you all so that I can attend (or, in Paula's case, not attend).

Karen said...

A friend from high school died of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) last fall. When she got the diagnosis, she set "goals" for her family that she wanted to see happen before she died (her daughter to graduate h.s., son to establish himself in college, etc.) I'm proud to say she lived long enough to accomplish everything on her list.

I think it's great to think about a "final party" and it helps your family a lot to know what you want! I know it was helpful in the case of my mom when she died. I have told my family I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered in the James River, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The word Shenandoah was derived from a Native American expression for "Beautiful Daughter of the Stars," which I love. It'd be nice if someone sang/played "Oh Shenandoah" - it would probably be gorgeous on the pipes. Piper Robert, are you taking bookings? ;-)

My Scots-Irish ancestors settled on the James River in 1732 and founded the town of Staunton, and I felt a strong affinity for that place when I visited. My boys and I canoed down the James and we still laugh about that crazy trip. Somehow I feel that I will come "full circle" in returning my remains to that beautiful spot. :-)

Putting on my elder care "expert" hat for a moment, I'll say absolutely everyone should have a will, an advance directive for health care and a power of attorney for financial matters. Without that power of attorney, your spouse cannot handle your financial matters if you are incapacitated, so that's particularly important.

Keep originals in a safe or safety deposit box and have copies on file with your doctor, your family, your executor and your financial planner. Okay, that's the lecture for today. :-)

the other Karen
PS: LOL Marco!

Lilli said...

What a fantastic lead you've got on this blog post. Not only do I NOT think you are morbid, I think you should get completely into the subject and turn this into a full personal essay and get it published.

Here's why: because we all (okay, I do) think about our funeral from time to time, or a deathbed scene. (See Karen's note about Death at a Funeral, and there have been many other funeral scenes in movies.)

I think it's my way of reminding myself that I'm loved. That someone really would cry over me at the end.

It's also a way to take inventory about whether I'm living my life in such a way that I would be pleased and proud (or at least relieved) about what people say about me when I'm gone.

SAMO Calling said...

I remember once reading about an epitaph joke that said...
"I told you I was sick"
I thought it was pretty funny.

Margaret Finnegan said...

The thing about the parties...I've been to a party like this. I had a friend dry tragically last year, and his last wish was that his wife rent a big boat and that all his friends sail around Newport Harbor and have a party. There was dance music, there were tequilla shots, and there were really sad people who really wished that they could have had permission to grieve. Yes, we all wanted to celebrate his life, but before we could do that, we all felt that we needed a chance to mourn his passing. So here's what I think: first, let people do the sad thing. They need to do the sad thing. Then, maybe six months later, maybe even a year later, have the party

Susan Carrier said...

That's an interesting perspective.

A year or so ago we went to hear Nikki Giovanni, the renowned poet, speak at Caltech. She shared the same view. She said that she's tired of "celebrations" after someone's death and wants people to mourn and grieve and wail after she's passed on.

Grieving is an essential step for those left behind. I think some of the best memorial services and celebrations I've attended have been several weeks after the passing.

Anonymous said...

Depends on what kind of death you have. In 2006, I had a VERY painful, prolonged illness that caused my brain to swell up so much that it pushed out my eyes. ( not all the way out, but enough to inhibit vision for 106 days.) The intense pain, day after day, made me beg for death to come as a relief from the torturous ordeal. I didn't have a thought at that point about funerals, just hoped my kids would be well taken care of.

We had to have our wills in place before leaving the country to do missions work in Latvia (age 25). We did medical directives then too. We have to revisit our wills every once in a while, b/c of added kids, different circumstances, etc. It's good to keep those things up to date. If you don't do it, the state'll do it for you. That's a motivator if there ever was one!

As for funerals, both Travis and I agree that we won't care what happens to ourselves at such a thing, b/c we'll be dead. The funeral really is about those left behind, esp. spouses or children that need to work through it. The mourning mixed with some celebration of life is for helping them adjust to their new "life as they now know it" paradigm shift.

All sensitivity should be made for those whose loss is greatest. Remember those on the anniversary of the death, the dead person's birthdays, holidays and other hard milestones. It does get much easier with time.

And a parting thought: ya can't take it with ya!

Tara in VA

Karen said...

I think Margaret is right. People do have to grieve first. Funerals are for the survivors -- to help them come to grips with what has happened.

Once I had a terrible accident and, as I was waiting for the paramedics to arrive, I became absolutely, truly convinced they'd be too late. So I prepared to die. What I was most concerned about was my loved ones, especially my kids. In fact, I was desperately upset imagining what (I thought) they were about to go through. (They were seven and eleven at the time.) I knew I'd be fine -- gone, reintegrated into the universe we all come from, free of the agonies and ecstasies of life as we know it. It was the survivors who would face an ordeal.

So I have to agree, a party would right after a loved one's passing is a bad idea.

The best funeral service I ever attended was for a cousin, who was a sort of local saint in her community. She was poor, but literally hundreds of people were at the service. She was also a truly devout Catholic, as were most of the attendees. Everyone's sincerity and kindness -- and love for the deceased -- shone like a light over the proceedings. For that reason, everyone who loved Ruth came away feeling at peace -- which is just what she would have wanted.

But I'd still want the Groucho glasses on my face as I headed into the fire!

Anonymous said...

My friend Carla sent the following to me in a private email. I thought it was so interesting that I asked her permission to post it for all to read:

I happened to be at Barnes and Noble and came across a great little book that really said it all for me. It is called "Annie Freeman's Fabulous Traveling Funeral" by Kris Radish. it is a story about a woman who leaves one final request - a traveling funeral that she wants the most important women in her life as "pallbearers". She basically has them meet and travel to all the important places she has been in her life and as they come to know each other and travel together they discover a lot about her, themselves and unravel the secret she has left them. It is an amazing story of grieving, missed opportunities and a look at what is possible. If you haven't heard of it or read it - do so. It's a great story and it's what I want. My friends to know each other, to know me in ways that maybe they didn't get a chance to and to see the big picture.

Susan Carrier said...

This has been a fascinating thread.

Here are my "must haves":
- Cremation, but I have no preference about the location for the scattering of the ashes. I wouldn't mind the ocean, but I just learned that, by law, the ashes must be released a minimum of three miles from shore.

- No flowers. Instead make donations to Hillsides or the Pasadena YWCA.

- Open Mic.: The most disappointing service I ever attended was for my friend Mary Ann, who died a dozen years ago from cancer. The priest said a few words, but no friends or family spoke.

The most satisfying was the service for Mara's husband, Chris. Location was the historic Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena, and the place hadn't seen such a crowd since the heyday of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Dozens of people crossed the stage and shared memories.

If nobody has anything to say, everyone can go home early.

Party: I'd like to put my friend Mary in charge of the party because we share the same taste and palate. George might try to have a pizza and beer party if he's in charge. And that's OK, but I'm afraid everyone would give him a hard time about it.

janet aird said...

The funeral that touched me the most was my daughter's exboyfriend's, who died a few years ago in a car accident. It was Chinese/American/Buddhist, at Rose Hills. They must have passed 30 boxes of kleenex around during the service, but the most amazing part was at the cemetery, where his sister and friends passed out specially printed paper money for everyone to drop into a fire in a metal barrel for him to use in his next life. It was incredible - an amazing short shift from feeling so sad to feeling good about helping him out on his journey. After awhile, everyone was smiling and telling stories about how wonderful he was.

I'd still like to be scattered in the mountains around here, but I really like the idea of a two-parter: the first for mourning and the second for people to be happy that I'd been in their lives.

JN said...

Dear Susan and fellow travelers,

Thank you for an opportunity to talk about death, the last taboo. I plan to be cremated, unless I can find a green cemetery somewhere that will let me be buried in a plain pine box, no concrete liner, no embalming, just dust to dust. Otherwises, ashes to ashes.

Several members of my husband's family have died during the 29 years we've been together, and there has been a viewing at every one. How ghoulish is that? Ugh!

But I want my friends and loved ones to have a chance to share with the community how I affected their lives and to grieve publicly. A get together like the one we had after my father died last year. People came from all over the country, including a cousin I hadn't seen in nearly 40 years. There was such a sense of love in the room -- the Onion out in the Valley. My mother had a friend arrange for a rabbi to preside, since my folks are not affiliated with a synagogue. Who should walk in, then, but the rabbi who had married Dan and me 25 years ago! We all shared memories, and laughed, and cried...and healed.