Vexations and Conundrums
By Katina Pontikes
Tales From the Funeral Parlor
Death! Oh, the finality of it. Or so one thinks, while they are wallowing in the numbness of grief and tears. However, death brings with it the responsibility of discarding the human vessel in which our souls reside. Burial in a plot, storage in a mausoleum, cremation. Huge emotional decisions must be made through a fog that may later turn to amnesia, so blurring is its effect on thinking.
I’ve heard of many horror stories related to family behaviors after the loss of a loved one. I too have experienced firsthand the labyrinth of decisions faced at the loss of a loved one. Here are a few examples of experiences encountered by the living dealing with death’s aftermath.
Family: Once someone has passed, the remaining relatives immediately begin, to varying degree, wondering what will happen to the deceased’s worldly possessions. Will they inherit money or prized possessions? Their expressions sometimes appear less consumed with grief than with curious anticipation. They query when the will shall be revealed.
Then there are the necessary technical arrangements. Who will decide how the body will be disposed? How much will it cost? Differences in opinion are bound to occur. I experienced a situation involving my husband’s mother’s death. He was operating as if he were in a parallel universe. His stepfather was so stunned, that he left the arrangements to us. I found myself stepping up to fill the void. That takes us to the Funeral Home.
Arrangements: Almost no one pre-arranges their service and funeral plans. What a great idea this is. My husband and I learned the hard way the myriad decisions that had to be made. We went to the“X” funeral home and met with the funeral guide whose title I can’t remember. I’m sure the title was fancy and designed to give us solace. What a bizarre meeting. It lasted for hours. Occasionally we had to stop to cry, with overflowing grief at the reality of our loss. We broke for lunch and reconvened afterwards. I could have sworn there was the sweet whiff of bourbon from our planner’s direction. (I would need a stiff shot to deal with this kind of drama daily, so I reserved judgment, as I sniffed the air to distract myself.)
A pre-purchased plot guided our first decision. There would be a burial. A casket would have to be selected. This decision was fraught with emotional risks. If we spent too little, his mother’s surviving sister would explode at our frugality for such a lovely woman’s passing. If we spent too much, my husband would be accused of squandering the estate for the surviving family members patiently waiting their share of the leftover money. We surveyed the well-lit casket sales room, which resembled a new car showroom in its fanciness. All the caskets were costly.
The mahogany one looked elegant. It cost thousands. My husband kept thinking of his aunt’s potential wrath. He was flummoxed. I asked our guide to help us in our decision making.
“At our death, we employees will all be provided this extraordinary blue stainless-steel vessel, with the lovely chrome handles, very stately,” he somberly shared. It cost a bloody fortune. My husband decided it would be good enough for his aunt’s critique, and we chose that one.
Next, we had to decide on the salon, the refreshments, and finally on how the deceased would be dressed and groomed. I had to answer what color nail polish she would wear, not remembering if she polished her nails or not. Nail polish is like lipstick, very difficult to get the right shade for oneself, let alone to select a shade that will look anything but gruesome on a dead, embalmed person. We did the best we could, signing lots of financial commitment pages in a blur.
The funeral service: The church service went rather quickly and smoothly. I had found (left purposely I’m sure) the receipt for my father-in-law’s service, in a safe. I knew how many limousines to hire for the family, how many police escorts were required, and the address of the burial site. I thought I’d sewed up the details. Wrong.
After church we went to the funeral home. We had decided only immediate family would view the body, and then we would close the casket for the public. I allowed forty-five minutes and sent out a note.
Forty-five minutes passed and my mother-in-law’s sister had failed to appear. We instructed the casket to be closed. The director came up to a small group of us and asked, “What do I do with her jewelry?” I froze. Why hadn’t this been in our hours-long meeting? I would have loved some of her ruby rings, square and custom-made.
I turned to my husband’s stepfather, who was somberly contemplating the question. He emotionally stated, “She loved jewelry. Leave it on her.” I said, “That’s that. Bury her in it.”
Minutes later, the aunt rolled in late in her wheelchair. “Where is my sister?” she belted out loudly. The casket had been closed, in what sounded like a detailed legal proceeding done in private. I told our director the casket would have to be reopened. His skin turned ashen and his body stiffened. I could only imagine some staff pulling out the Crisco to get the jewelry back on the deceased’s stiffened fingers.
All plans were delayed so that the sister could have a private goodbye. I secretly cursed the omission of such an important question as what to do with diamonds, wedding rings and such. I was pretty sure this wasn’t an accidental oversight.
My husband and I are making an appointment this week to arrange our cremation and celebrations. We are going to ensure that we, not our emotional, possibly feuding relatives, make these plans. My control freak personality finds peace in this option.
After a twenty-year career in telecommunications management, Katina took early retirement to pursue personal goals. She returned to a long-shelved love of writing, currently addressing the myriad ways we all cope with life’s dilemmas.
Ed. Note: This is a brand-new column and with it we welcome Katina to our roster of monthly columnists and wish her the best of luck.