The Business of Death.

Via Erica Leibrandt
on Jul 10, 2013
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In 2004, my son died.

He was sixteen when he hung himself in the basement with a belt. All of us, his baby brother, his four sisters, my husband and I, were home when it happened.

A family forever fractured.

Obviously, I think about him all the time. The strangest things bring back the strangest memories. Recently I saw my second son’s shoes on the floor.

At nine, he’s a tall lanky thing with boat shaped feet—adult size eight. It’s not like I’d never seen them on the floor before. Indeed, they are there every day, in my way, underfoot, threatening a sprained ankle if I don’t hop over them just in time.

But for some reason on this day when I saw them, I thought of Bobby’s big feet. His big shoes were also perpetually underfoot. They are still tucked away with his skateboard and some other things in the closet of his room.

I guess it’s not so surprising that I think of Bobby when I pass cemeteries, too. Especially nice cemeteries, because I hate the one we picked for him. It was a regrettable decision made when we were mad with grief. There is nothing that can prepare you for the business of burying your son.

Two days after he died we had to pick out his coffin.

I had never thought about this kind of purchase before; it’s not like they have coffin stores. (But they do!) The woman at the funeral home guided us down into their basement where, lo and behold, an array of coffins filled a huge room just like cars at a car dealership. Like such cars, these coffins were shiny and perfect with the expensive ones right at the front and the cheaper ones crammed unappealingly in the back.

The further back you went, the cheaper you were meant to feel—a fact which was not lost on me despite the horror of the day. We stopped about halfway through and had to ask ourselves: how much do we want to pay for a box in which to put the body of our child? This is quite a question. The saleslady did not look pleased with our selection.

It was the same kind of thing at the cemetery.

I really have no idea how we ended up at this particular place, it’s not even close to our home, but there we were. The idea of shopping around for other cemeteries just didn’t enter my mind. A balding man in an ill fitting suit made us wait for over an hour in his office to look at the plots he had available. The place smelled overwhelmingly of cat pee so when he finally got around to us, I was relieved just to get away from the smell.

The first plot he showed us was right by the road—literally three feet from the actual pavement. Later, we figured he must show this plot first to everyone, it being the absolute worst. Anything else would have seemed fantastic compared to it. By the time we had walked to the second plot, I was hyper ventilating.

The wind whipped across the snowy ground, unbroken by the gravestones that surrounded us on every side. There was one tree nearby, large and handsome, on which someone had hung a lovely wind chime.

Let this just be it, my husband and I agreed, needing it to be over.

We didn’t know the tree was dead and would be knocked down by a storm early in the Spring, or that the cemetery people would rip up all the subsequent trees we planted claiming they were ‘too difficult to mow around.” So there our son, and now my father-in-law as well lays, on a bleak and treeless tract beneath a riot of goose droppings. I will lie there too one day.

We waited a while to buy the stone, which was exorbitant in price (like the casket, like the plot, like the funeral. I’m telling you, people are cashing in on grief), and painful to think about. We figured we would spend what we had saved for Bobby’s college tuition on it, about $10,000. It was good that we had the money, but to use it on a stone instead of an education seemed unfathomable. Nevertheless, we wanted to honor him.

We settled on a handsome cross, engraved with the words, “For Bobby, who had the heart of a Titan” because he did, and also because his high school football team is named the Titans. You would think that $10,000 and the personal nature of the purchase might have guaranteed us good service. When the stone was delivered with Bobby’s incorrect birthdate over a year after it was supposed to have arrived, we were treated as though we were being unreasonable in asking for a replacement.

The funeral itself, at the big Catholic church in the center of town, we had another surprise. We were the first of two funerals scheduled that day, and because we have such a large family, and everyone wanted to speak, we were running a little long.

As my youngest daughter stood at the podium whispering through her tears into the microphone about how she used to wrestle with her brother, a priest rushed out on stage. “Tell that girl she needs to wrap it up,” he announced loudly and stood off to the side fairly tapping his foot with impatience.

My husband straightened his big body and turned around to look at the priest.

Then he said to our daughter, “Go ahead, sweetheart. You take your time.” After a few more of her soft words the priest came forward again. “She needs to stop speaking now!” “She’ll be done when she’s done!” my husband practically shouted, but it was too late. My daughter ran off sobbing, and the others were on her heels trying to comfort her.

What bothers me most, though, is that original woman from the funeral home. Remembering the look on her face when we didn’t get the expensive casket, despite her insistence that we should.

How she put us in their smallest room, although no other wake was going on that day, forcing the massive crowd that came to pay their respects to wait outside in the bitter cold. Particularly how, when we see her now, and we do, because she belongs to our country club, she doesn’t even say hello.

If we had spent more money, would she be sending us drinks?

I was watching a program about the Vikings the other day, and one part explained how they dealt with their dead. They built a pyre on a raft, on top of which they laid the body of the deceased, beneath garlands of flowers and things the person had loved in life. They ignited the pyre and pushed it out to sea, where it burned brightly as it floated away, eventually dissolving into the water and drifting peacefully down. This seems so much simpler to me. No embalming, no open casket with the face of the dead made up with grease paint, the lips sewn shut with heavy thread. No middlemen, no sales men, no con men, no priests.

I wish so many things.

I wish my son had never died. That we’d never had to see him hanging from that closet bar and embrace his lifeless teenaged body as the nurses in the ER tried to pry us away. But if that had to be, and it did, I wish I had seen a better side of the people who helped us bury him. I wish for them the ability to see that grief, while mundane for them, is raw and blistering and new for each person as they experience it.

I hope that when their loved one passes, they will be handled by people kinder than they are, or perhaps that they are simply given a pyre and a raft which can drift away unhurried.


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Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: via Pinterest}


About Erica Leibrandt

Erica Leibrandt is a licensed mental health clinician, certified yoga instructor, and mother to six heathens who masquerade as innocent children. If she occasionally finds herself with a fried egg on her plate or dancing until dawn, she asks that you not judge her. Life is short, she knows the chicken that laid the egg, and we can never dance too much. Connect with Erica on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr.


28 Responses to “The Business of Death.”

  1. Dawn says:

    Gosh Erica, your article really expresses how I feel about the “grief” industry!

    I’m so sorry that you had to experience such callousness at the hands of people who should have known better.

    Thank you for your honesty & courage.

  2. Caitlin says:

    I am so sorry for your loss and the appalling way that you were treated.
    In such an industry you would expect to find people with empathy and compassion but I guess the bottom line is …it all comes down to money. Such a ashame.

  3. uma simon says:

    I think you're a good writer. Please write more.

  4. Erica Leibrandt says:

    Thanks Dawn! I really appreciate the support!

  5. Angie Wright-Nash says:

    This was truly lovely, and very sad – I'm so sorry for your loss, and sorrier for your experience.

  6. Lauren says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your heart with us like that, Erica. Simply thank you.

  7. Keith Penhall says:

    A truly sad way to be introduced to the grieving industry, and appallingly treated to boot.

    I have a personal relationship with 3 men in the industry; they, too, would be appalled by your treatment.

    May the sun smile on you and yours.

  8. Mollie says:

    Such raw courage and honest integrity…

  9. Pat says:

    I also lost a child, my sweet Sara, at 16 from a genetic disease. We were fortunate to have a great (if that can be said about planning your child's funeral) experience with our funeral home. We chose to have her cremated, so she can always be with us, even if we move. The funeral home let us "rent" a beautiful casket for the day. At such a stressful time, you see the best and the worst of people. People I had thought would be there for me, were not, while I was surprised, pleasantly, by others who were. You are a wonderful writer, and I hope it helped just a teeny bit to do this article. Four years have passed, and I don't feel any less grief than I did four years ago. People keep telling me time heals, but I'm not so sure when it's your child. God bless!!

  10. Erica says:

    Pat, Im so sorry for your loss…but so glad you had an experience different from mine. I don't think the pain ever lessens, we just learn how to work with it better. Blessings to you 🙂

  11. Erica says:

    Uma, thank you! I will…I can't help it 🙂

  12. Debi says:

    So painful. And so calloused. My brother died in a car accident when he was 20. I remember a pastor said "maybe this is God's answer". How dare he interpret God that way.

  13. amandabethsuutari says:

    Thank you.

  14. Tish says:

    I feel the same way about the hospice industry. It's not just a job; the peaceful, supported transition from life to death for a loved one is a potent and poignant gift that can be given or withheld from grieving families. It's too bad that so many people who provide end of life care, including funeral services, become jaded and forget that their professions also require them to hold compassionate space for the grieving.

  15. Erica says:

    Debi, I couldn't agree with you more. It is painfully presumptuous when people put forth the idea that "this was meant to be" or any similar idea. Im so sorry for the loss of your brother.

  16. Erica says:

    Tish, I am so thankful for people like you. My mother is also a dedicated hospice care worker, so I know there are good people out there! I just happened to run into the rotten apples!

  17. Linda says:

    Why do bad things happen to good people? I am so sorry to read about the loss of your son and life afterward. The love of my life passed away at a hospice surrounded by wonderful, caring people. Their kindness will never be forgotten and the personal letters from doctors and friends are also treasured. Support, I now understand, is a gift. It doesn't come in the form of money but compassion from one human to another. Your son was loved and continues to be loved by your family. Thank you for writing the painful story. People have no idea until things happen to them.

  18. connie says:

    Dear Erica, So very sad at the horendous experience you endured in obtaining funeral services for your son.You are so correct in that the pain never goes away.You express such love and compassion in your wishes for those who treated you (and others, I'd be sure) in such a callous way ;it's so natural and easy to harbor the anger, outrage and resentment that eats away at so many good things we carry inside. As a hospice R.N. for 10 yrs. of my 30 yr. nursing career, I am very familiar with the "business of death"; it IS a business and the $ so often overtakes the empathy and compassion and that makes me very sad.I have witnessed first hand the cold hearted responses of priests and other clergy, medical staff, caregivers and the funeral industry. Even with husband and I recently had to pay $140 to have our 20 yr. old suffering cat euthanized.If we had chosen to stay in the room during the administration of the fatal IV that would have been another $100 ! My heart breaks for you. I applaud your courage in sharing and your writing skills. Thank you.

  19. Tamara J. Cardinal says:

    Thank you for this story. It is depicts the raw and vulnerability we can fill ourselves in in life. This is a journey, that as parents, we never want to walk. You shared a story of courage and of your truth. I feel honoured to have read this. Keep writing, you have a gift — you write with much heart.

  20. Roger Walsh says:

    Erica, I am so sad to hear of your experiences; first and most of all the loss of your son. Death is difficult for many under any circumstance; but suicide truly leaves you broken. I am a licensed funeral director and am appalled at how you were made to feel at the worst possible time.
    Funerals really are expensive but with care compassion and appropriate choices they should be able to fit the needs both financially and emotionally. A truly dedicated funeral director should be properly trained to assist all families to work through the difficult road of a funeral. I will say all of us are not created equal and there are many dedicated funeral professionals who are in the business to care and not just make money. Please know that if a funeral pyre was possible in our "civilized" society (jest) and you came asking for it; there are funeral directors that would make it happen because it was the right thing to do. And those that won't don't deserve your time or hard earned money.

    It would be nice if the "love and struggle" to make the almighty dollar didn't cloud what is right and just.

    As far a the Catholic Church and their priests; YIKES!!!. I too have witnessed exactly what you have described and have been horrified by the conduct of a so called man of God. I am a "no longer catholic" for this reason as well as many others and wonder if the institution itself will ever get it. Of course I have seen this with many denominations; catholics don't have the commodity on being jerks. That said like funeral directors not all priests or clergy are created equal and there are many I have been humbled and honored to work with over the 30 + years as a funeral director and care deeply for the grief each family goes through.

    Please accept my apologies from all of us who are exhausted from hearing stories such as yours. Believe me I don't get it either

  21. Erica says:

    Roger, Thank you for this deeply moving response. The wonderful thing about having written this article is that it seems the vast majority of people have not shared my experiences. For this, I am grateful. And also for men like you who are good stewards of those in difficult times. Lots of love, E

  22. Erica says:

    Connie, As bad as "the business of death" can be, it is wonderful people like you who make the difference. Thank you for your service and compassion…as well as your encouragement of me! I am so sorry to hear of the way you were treated with your animal. That is disgraceful. As a fellow animal lover I know those last moments are tattooed on your brain. I really can not imagine why an extra $100 would be required for you to hold your animal as he or she passed. Much love to you… Erica

  23. Erica says:

    Linda, Im so glad your experience was different than mine. I am discovering through having written this piece that the good people in the industry far outweigh the bad. I guess we were just unlucky! The compassionate responses to my article are filling me with belated joy. Thank you.

  24. Erica says:

    Tamara, Thank you so much for your kind words. It is people like you who have made the difference and allowed our family to heal over time. XOE

  25. @LYRoush says:

    Erica, I am so sorry about the loss of your son. I can only imagine the pain of losing him … and then of having to plan his funeral service. It must have been excruciating for you and your family.

    I work for an Internet startup in Cleveland called eFuneral. We were founded out of a personal struggle to plan an unexpected funeral for a loved one. It's a shame that funerals are so expensive and that there is so little transparency in the industry. That's why we've made it our mission to give families the information they need, at no cost, to make informed decisions. Our hope is to help families through the most painful time of their lives. Our hope is to help people plan – with confidence – funerals that honor their loved ones and that fit their budgets.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    My thoughts are with you and your family, Leah

  26. Roylynne Harris says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope to never know the pain of losing my son. I am associated with this industry. I own and operate a flower shop. Several years before I opened my shop I lost a close friend after she killed herself. At her funeral I noticed how beautiful her casket flowers were. I later found out that the family had paid $600 for it. I remember thinking that I would want to honor my mother in that way if she passed but I didn’t have that much money for flowers. I prayed then and told The Lord that if ever He blessed me with a flower shop I would not take advantage of people in their time of grief. Having worked at other shops , I knew how much it cost. As a result I have a file of cards sent from families thanking me and my shop for the beautiful flowers and kindness we showed. I have been blessed to have a profitable business since we opened 7 years ago. I give all the credit to The Lord. I cringe when we have to do work for a child but wish that I could’ve served you and your family during your difficult time of loss.

  27. Richard Jablinski says:

    Hard story.

  28. steven whitlow says:

    wow as a future funeral director, these stories just make me want to be the most caring and compassionate director on the planet. The reality of this is that people will always forget love and tenderness in the place of the almighty dollar if they are not grounded in love for people. My heart goes out to anyone who has received such service and prayers to all the bereaved families.