The most disturbing thing to me about attitudes toward death today is the idea that it must be convenient. This is the reason for funeral webcasting, delayed interment and “we’ll just have the memorial in the Spring when everyone is here.” Why isn’t everyone here now? Someone died. Stop what you are doing right now.
“Can you keep her in the fridge for a couple more weeks?” What do you mean, can I? Legally? Technically yes. Is there room? Well, probably, even though we have a lot of other people who were just kind of dumped there by relatives who can’t be bothered to put on a suit and meet in a place with other relatives. But why would you want to? Why would you rather leave your mother on a shelf in a cooler than ask for some damn time off from your job so you can bury her?
I realize it’s not that simple for everyone. Your boss is a jerk and doesn’t care that your mom died. (Visualizing this situation applying to many members of a large, scattered family.) You’ll never see paid time off, and it’s hard enough to get permission for unpaid time. And I know my advice is impossible to follow: do it anyway. Don’t ask. My mom died and I will be gone for the next week to attend the burial and settle affairs with the rest of the family.
I’m trying to think of a job that you just can’t leave for a week. Look at my job. I work when people die. And in the meantime, I live. Well, not really. I read my book and go to the gym and look through catalogs of funeral stuff and dog-ear the new suture needles and register book designs. But that’s the life I chose, and I live it. I go to my kids’ school things and I visit friends and I might even book a trip somewhere. I do this for leisure. You can do it when someone has died.
When my youngest sister was born at 29 weeks gestation and had to spend the next three months in an incubator, my stepmom was a teacher in rural Alaska. She took three months off and basically moved into the hospital. It was hugely inconvenient and expensive. The tiny school had to find another teacher, in a village with 700 people. I remember when my sister had turned three, my parents had a party to celebrate the day the bill was finally paid off, and the rest of my siblings and I threw a fit and asked “How come she gets two birthdays?!”
“But you don’t know how important my job is!” Nope. Guess not. “I deal with [blah blah big important expensive thing]!” That’s great.
One family who came to see me sure let me know about their big important jobs. Specifically, the brother’s job. A man and woman called wanting to bury their mother, and the daughter kind of took control from the beginning. Just trying to set a time for the arrangement was impossible; she had only ONE time available all week to come in with her brother because he had a very important job as a stockbroker (“I don’t know if you know what that is,” she helpfully injected).
Nope. Guess not. Is that like a farmer or something?
So of course the ONE time they could come in was a time I already had a funeral. “Cancel it,” she helpfully suggested when I mentioned this. “My brother has a very important appointment.”
Cancel…my service? The minister and flowers and musicians and the hundreds of guests? All so this guy can get to his…what was that again?
“My brother has a very important business meeting and he needs to get ready for it!”
Getting ready for his meeting. He must have some kind of important presentation to prepare for his important job.
Nope, turns out he had to get his important hair done. This family wanted me to bail on an entire service, basically shut the place down, so some guy could go to the beauty shop.
This was of course passed around the office to the other funeral directors, who all laughed and wondered what kind of drama freak show the funeral was going to be if just the initial phone call was this bad. I started to wonder about the guy’s hair. Maybe it was more important than I could imagine. Maybe he had long flowing Fabio hair, or maybe he was getting dreadlocks for his very important stockbroker thing. What would I know? I’m so backwoods I probably didn’t even know what a stockbroker was until I had it explained to me. I sometimes come into work without having had a hair appointment at all.
But when I finally saw this guy, I experienced the greatest letdown of my career: he was a normal middle-aged guy with middle-aged guy hair. And for that, I was expected to cancel an entire service for which the family had paid. I was really looking forward to basking in the striking appearance of the most important man in the world. I felt badly that these people had to seek out an unrefined clod such as myself and probably speak slowly and use crayon drawings to communicate with me. My office, and my clearly home-washed hair, probably reminded them of some third-world country with poop water.
When someone has died, MY JOB is the most important job in the world. Yours doesn’t matter. I don’t do my job differently for stockbrokers than I would for car washers, or for the unemployed, and I don’t cancel anyone’s funeral to make room for the upper echelon.
If you are not replaceable at work, they can suffer without you long enough for you to attend a funeral. If you are replaceable, odds are you’ll be replaced soon enough anyway over something far more trivial. But more importantly, YOUR JOB is also replaceable! Jobs that will not let you off long enough for a funeral are crappy jobs. Crappy jobs are everywhere. Go to the funeral and get yourself another crappy job.
Sadly, I know that most people who request that we hold the body for weeks or even months are not doing so for work-related reasons. They have become accustomed to not ever letting anything get in the way. They had graduations to attend, or birthday parties, or Disneyland. One family said they had a cruise booked. And I’m sorry to say, the family I described above was not the only family to try and schedule services and arrangements around hair appointments.
This is another example of things the Internet has ruined. If we can just have the funeral playing in the background, we don’t even need to put on pants. And, you know, Mom’s dead so it’s not like she’ll know I wasn’t there.
In most cities, all funeral homes are on call for the medical examiner on a rotating basis during which time they assume responsibility for all unclaimed dead. And in nearly all of these cases, no one will step forward to claim the body and a relative will never be found. The body is then cremated and the cremated remains stored in a vault with many others. But very occasionally, we can locate family and they will come in to make arrangements.
In one of these cases, we found an estranged son. He was a doctor, which I think might be some kind of important job. He immediately flew in to meet with me to arrange a simple cremation. A cremation which can often be arranged by phone and fax, but he jumped away from his important doctor job to meet me in person.
“Have you thought about what kind of urn you might like?” I asked during the arrangement. “I don’t know; I’ve never really had to think about urns before.”
Oh yeah. I forget, not everyone is like me.
“…and with this bronze one, you have the option of adding custom engraving, or even a laser-etched photo.” I showed him the example we had in stock.
“Can I buy that one? With that guy’s face on it?”
You, good sir, can buy whatever you want.
I arranged another simple cremation, over phone and fax, with a woman who lived a two-hour drive away. I faxed her the forms and took payment over the phone, then mailed the cremated remains. She told me she was busy at work; she was a bank teller and just couldn’t get the time off. Bank teller…is that important? Probably. But the following week, she made that two-hour drive to bring me some homemade jam, saying I had made the whole experience so easy for her and I was very comforting.
Comfort by fax? And now I get jam? This is why I do what I do.