July 10, 2013

The Business of Death.

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}

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