Two Men, Two Funerals
When last you heard from me, I had just become a young widow, and was trying to beat my way out of the car after I learned that my husband, Nick, and his friend Scott were dead. As my friend drove me home, I remembered that I had two little girls to pick up along the way. We got home a little before six, and ran the gauntlet of reporters to the porch, into a house that held no safety anymore.
Someday I’ll tell you more about what that was like, but for now I’d like to get these two young men out of the county coroner’s and take a look at how they were laid to rest.
Their funerals were complete opposites. It wasn’t only that one of them went into the ground and the other up in smoke. It was that one funeral, green and at home, healed and helped, and the other didn’t.
On that hot August day, after Nick and Scott fell from the sky in a tandem hang glider, they were tucked into cool drawers at the morgue, and there they stayed until the doctor’s work was done, autopsies written, and paperwork signed. Almost two days.
Two days of the tick tock of 2,880 minutes haunting me to be with him. However I found him. But because I didn’t understand my rights, I was kept away and given every reason why I couldn’t, why they wouldn’t. It was all a big ‘no.’
When someone dies there’s a lot of work to do, usually pretty quickly. Especially when it’s sudden, like when your husband goes to work in the morning and hits the ground before lunch. There is, as a friend said, one of the biggest parties of your life to plan, organize and hold in a really short time.
People were coming in from across the country, needing rides from the airport. The hallway was a tangle of strange shoes (none of them Nick’s). Within hours, in this Ohio village, my kitchen counters were piled with pies and muffins, loaves of bread, coffee and peaches and slow cookers of ham.
The day he died was late in the week of two working parents. A Monday would have been better if we could have planned, because we cleaned together on Sundays. But we were not prepared for him to die, and so there was a bucket of soaking diapers by the washing machine, and a yard full of toys and weeds. I hadn’t had a haircut in months and didn’t own funeral clothes. And the girls – how do you dress a toddler for a funeral or talk a six year old out of her summertime bare feet and into patent leather Mary Jane’s to go see her dead Daddy?
I had three days to put on this funeral thing, with a house full of weeping people and a filthy car. The cat went missing but since I didn’t remember I had a cat, I wasn’t worried.
People came in and made my decisions, cleaned my fridge, fed my kids. While I begged strange men to let me see Nick, friends took the girls shopping. As I crouched over the phone, holding one ear closed so I could hear the police describe what happened, someone planned a wake after the funeral service. And while I swept the front walk and half the village block for hours, his big loving family, in the worst crisis of their lives, did what families do: they turned to the solid, decent funeral home they always turned to, the one that was there when Nick’s Daddy died, and his grandparents before him.
I have a thousand regrets about this. Like so many errors we make, we would surely make them again on that day, in that place. I didn’t know any better and I couldn’t have done any better then, I suppose.
Still, I owed Nick a huge apology. It was bad enough he died, but then, I got him buried all wrong. It’s not like I didn’t know what he wanted.
“Lean me against a tree and walk away,” he said.
Every time, that’s what he said. And he meant it.
He was Emerson, Thoreau and Mark Twain with some hippie mystic sprinkles on top. He was private and deep, and would no more have wanted to be up on stage for the ‘big stuffed doll show,’ lying exposed, embalmed, powdered and suited up, than dance a burlesque show in a three ring circus.
He lay under fluorescent lights in an expensive open casket, harp music playing, carnations and formaldehyde scenting the air, while every person he ever knew from home and work and school and distant cousins and friends and all their wives and husbands and children lined up, took their one minute turn at looking down at his bearded, 33 year-old face, a small smile glued to his lips, then moved on.
Really, I had no idea it would be like this. It was so bizarre. It was the two of us, who never dressed up, never had large gatherings, dancing together in a freakish public event that didn’t fit our lives any more than the tight, square-toed pumps I stood in at the foot of his coffin. Thank God I was in shock, because this profane spectacle was so wrong. Another ‘no’ in a free fall to hell.
But at least I was finally by his side. I stood under the bright lights in bizarre-to-me clothes and took each person’s hand, looked into their eyes and recounted a little memory Nick had told me about them. Mostly, I was pitifully glad to be near to his dead body, like an animal mourning by the side of its dead mate.
It was 1988 in rural Ohio. The funeral costs then were over $7,000.00, one third of his reporter’s annual salary. They sold us the metal coffin and vault, the extra flowers and clergy, obit notices, limos and guest books. My six year-old picked out the pricey satin for the padded upholstery inside the casket (pink, her favorite color). The cemetery plot, a double, was my first real estate purchase.
I was a typical funeral consumer.
I didn’t know anything else was possible; still, could I have done better than this? After all, I had given birth to our babies in our bedroom at home, in the early 80’s, when it was practically impossible, nearly illegal, and the hospital industrial complex had a lock on what was allowed. Nick and I did our research and worked with midwives who knew how to birth a baby at home, and the laws and the risks too.
But we never thought about what to do when one of us died. We didn’t think about the funeral industrial complex. But we should have.
Expensive, with no room for our own values, full of horrible chemicals that are not needed but pushed, a system built to step in and take over and take away choices. And make a profit from all of it, when people are sad, sad, crushed and sad. A cookie cutter approach to cover up what is real and hard and heart rending, to move people through a conveyor belt past the dead, with a minute to grieve in public. (I’d sooner have pulled my panties down and peed on the carpet in that funeral home parlor than open my heart and wail.)
I know that funeral homes and funeral directors are there at the worst times in our lives. They are standing on tradition, they are helpful, and many funeral directors do care. They are working within the system we have all agreed to, or at least tolerated, for managing all the shit when death comes. And it is not working for so many folks for so many reasons. It has got to change.
They know to wait behind quiet, heavy doors to receive our fear, our dread, our confusion, our dead. So, when we walk through those oiled doors and sit at the big table to pick out coffins and liners, officiants and interment options, looking for someone to take it all away and pull a dense, soft curtain around what is really happening, we give away our organic ability to create something real and even beautiful out of the inescapable brutality of death. We buy into more of the big ‘no,’ and we pay dearly.
It was all wrong, when it could have been all right, even transformative, even beautiful.
Remember Scott? He’s the one who flew the hang glider and eventually, the one who went up in smoke in the crematorium. His family had many Quaker friends, and it was probably those quiet rabble rousers with personal relationships to Spirit who knew how to attend to a death in a more simple, humane and real way.
When the coroner released them, Nick went one way with a funeral director in a hearse. Scott went another in the back of a Volkswagon bus with his partner and a few other friends. He lay wrapped in a cherished blanket inside of a simple pine casket built by local craftsmen, for $100. Or maybe it was free. Whatever it was, it was beautiful and real and smelled like fresh cut pine. Knowing those folks driving the bus, they probably popped his favorite tape in and sang ‘Let it Be’ on the ride home.
His body lay in their home for a home vigil, while they ceremonially tended to him, cleaned and anointed his body, and sang. They held his hands, touched his face, cried, hugged and even laughed, and because this was a home funeral, they were able to take all the time and space they needed to adapt to his death. His partner told me she spent a lot of time with him alone, in the silence of the night, talking to him and crying, praying and being together.
The room was filled with rose petals and rose water and rosemary, things from their own garden outside the door. There were children and elders coming and going. My cat was probably over there too, because their place, unlike mine, was quiet and peaceful.
When they were complete in their ministrations of Scott and one another, they drove him to the crematorium and carried the pine box into the building together. I wasn’t there, but it could have been that some of them helped to slide it into the retort. They prayed together while he was cremated. Then they came back and had a ceremony outside on the lawn of Antioch College, a large circle of folks holding hands, of whom I was one. We released balloons (before we knew better) into a light breeze. It all felt right, like the relief of a ‘yes’ inside too many ‘noes.’
What happened after Nick and Scott died – in two houses across a quiet village street from one another – mattered. I didn’t have the information or the support around me to find a way to have a funeral for Nick that was aligned with his, with our, beliefs. So I gave myself up to the traditional approach to funerals, where there is very little room for what is unique, something that fit our family and our values. And I paid for it.
What I now know is that a family given choices to keep it real and in alignment with what their views are matters more than anything. For those who want a traditional style funeral, it’s all set up for them, by default. For everyone else, know that there are options for a family-directed home funeral, or funeral homes who will work with you to do what is right for you.
When everything is no, helping the grievers find as many yesses as possible can support and hold them in ways that can help transform a public, brutal situation into something safer, softer and more healing.