Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Last Respects

My dad paid for his own funeral, upfront, probably years in advance of the actual event. And he chose the budget plan. A thrifty man, he elected to zing his way into eternity, tourist class. Box and burn.

Which made his kids an easy mark for the funeral director.

“Your father made no provisions for a pillow, so his head will, ahem, rest on a hard surface, until, ahem, the cremation, unless you instruct us otherwise.”

Oh for god's sake, we said, give the man a pillow. And silk sheets? Oh yes, give him some sheets. And yes, yes, we said, a blanket, an armrest, a bookcase, and whatever else this vampira threw our way. For all I know, we ok’d a TV, walnut writing desk, swimming pool, and recessed lighting.

The pillow alone was like $100, and it strikes me now we could have just brought a pillow from home. Although I’m sure there would have been a surcharge for using our own pillow, something akin to a corkage fee.

Dad: 0; Kids: 1

Dad had also apparently scored a good deal for a slot in the Mausoleum next to my mom, who had died years earlier. This appalled my sister, who instead insisted we buy two gravesites on her San Juan Island, in a spot overlooking the ocean, and order two tombstones to be carved out of red granite imported from Norway.

Dad: 0; Kids: 2

But Dad left no instructions as to funeral music, nothing for us to override. Music had played a limited role in his life – I don’t recall he listened to anything other than the occasional Grieg, marching band, or, for some unfathomable reason, the soundtrack to Evita. So we, his children, had to kick around various possibilities, dismissing Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, because we had every faith Argentina wasn't, and had no intention of doing so. So that left us with either Peer Gynt or a marching band. We settled on Sousa. Brass band, woodwinds, drums, cymbals, the works.

And it was the best decision we ever made.

When it comes to funerals, and if you’re in charge of arrangements, be very careful about the music you choose. Because once played at the funeral, you’re effectively removing that piece from your life forever.

But a Sousa march? Remove it, the sooner the better. A Sousa march would never sabotage any of us when we’d least expect it – say, at a restaurant, or in the car, on the radio, when driving home from Santa Barbara late at night. In fact, the only person in our whole lives who had ever played a Sousa march was, yes, our father.

Though the sniffling funeral crowd looked startled, even shocked, leaving the church to the beat of Dum-dum-da-da-da, Da-da-da-da-da-da!, we felt we’d done the right thing.

We owed it to Dad, what with the pillow and all.


  1. Your Father paid for his own funeral?!? In that respect, some people I know have all the luck!

  2. Well, K. I have done the same... When I dealt w/my husband's funeral, I figured wth, and get mine settled ahead of time... and yes, it was to make things easier for the kids but also, I couldn't beat the price.($3500 to be cremated).. u know prices inflate... anywho to some it seem creepy- I call it smart. One less thing to deal with.. Funny how mortuary folks treat plots/wall space like real estate-( get my drift?).

  3. I never really like all that Souza stuff anyway.
    A bit of your humorous take on such a somber subject. Thanks for sharing. Peace.

  4. I've never known a funeral director who was merely middle-middle class. In small towns, the funeral home is usually the largest house in the village. Isn't it?

    Your take on the biz, commercial and personal, is awfully clever. Sousa indeed.

    My parents did the thrifty, plan-ahead method too, and I really, really appreciated it.

  5. A pillow? For a cremation?? And they say lawyers overreach.

  6. I don't think the plan-ahead is ghoulish at all. At least it gives the family a framework so the funeral home can't take total advantage. All they can do is upsell, upsell, upsell.

    Yeah John, a pillow. Because she put that image of Dad's discomfort in our heads. It's not a rational time.

  7. My mother pre-planned her funeral, just leaving details to us. That made it easier during a very stressful time.

    That's great that you chose Souza; reminds me a bit of Second Lines in New Orleans, after the funeral, jazz them up to heaven in style.

  8. Cremation was cheap in Florida, where my mother didn't leave enough to pay for a pillow, let alone her cremation. And I was told that I had to pay either for an urn, or $35 for a "temporary container," which was a cardboard box with a plastic bag inside it, and a dark green, shiny shopping bag with handles on it, because you can't tote a box of ashes out of the crematorium, after all.

    And at least you had siblings to share in the funeral planning. I should have played Sousa, instead of that Gawdawful video that my aunt created on her computer from pictures she got from who-knows-where, with date inaccuracies galore and a hideous "sound track". Oh, well, at least she liked it. And I don't ever have to see her again, so I won't have to lie about how much I appreciated it.

  9. Hahahaha. They sold us on some kind of eternal care plan. If the world ends, do we get a refund?

  10. A pragmatic fellow, indeed, despite the Director's machinations.

    We had a biker neighbor who died in a crash - cruise control on while driving his Harley, he fell asleep and awoke too late to maneuver the fork in the highway at US 10 and Interstate 35. Only the bottle of Jack was left unscathed.

    His brothers had their own input for the funeral, for one, painting his coffin the same color as his bike in addition to other biker cultural traditions such as every chopper performing a burnout leaving historic Oakland Cemetery in St. Paul, which contains headstones from the Civil War era and some amazing sculpture and mausoleums. The one guy in the Club that owed Tiger money wiped out - I have the photos of his road rash. Served him right.

    Punky asked if I would create a tape of Country music for the reception since his brother Tiger was secretly a fan of the genre. I agreed and set about the task of finding songs with the appropriate decorum for a funeral. I spent sixteen hours on the task, in one sitting no less, for a two hour mix tape of some of America's most mournful odes. After I finished I think I was more depressed than I'd ever been in my life. I kind of recall having a few drinks with the lads later that night, but I'm a bit hazy. No photographic evidence exists.

    What music would you have for such an event when it transpires? I'm leaning to a new Orleans style brass band, for the shift from something dirge-like to something more celebratory. Bon-Ton Roulette!

  11. The folks pre-paid for theirs'. Including the plots. Overlooking the best scenery in town. When time came... we sold the plots - we needed the money. Got top dollar for those sited plots! Ahd we parked the folks in next to last row at the cemetery. They'll never notice that the view is different, right? $20,000 made a difference to the living...

  12. Yes, funerals and burials and such have everything to do with the living and little if anything to do with the dead. Treat people well when they're alive, if they have been treating you well in return, and then you can do away with the oceanside plot and the dirges.

    Actually, my dad who hated waste of any kind, liked the idea of a tidy little drawer in a mausoleum. An orderly filing cabinet arrangement, rather than giving over prime real estate to the dead. I happen to like cemeteries, so we differed in this.

  13. My grandpa paid for his. Burial at sea. It was some group that does them. I can't remember what it was called, but the whole point was to make it as cheap as possible. That was what the man wanted, and seeing as he came of age during the depression it would have been mean not to give him what he wanted.

  14. I love the idea of going out in style to a marching band. I may have to borrow that....

  15. My dad was a clergyman. He hated people spending too much on funerals and probably advised them about resisting the tactics of the funeral homes. I imagine he was not a favorite of theirs.

    When I was a kid my did would do funerals or grave stone dedications, and he would take me to the cemetery with him. I would hang out and play among the tombstones and mausoleums until he was done. I remember being freaked out at these Classical Greek little buildings when my dad explained to me that these were mausoleums and how they worked. I'd go home and play with my blocks and build cemetery and add a mausoleum or two. I must have been working it out.

  16. My dad had said, "Bury me in a plain old pine box." When we told the funeral director this, he said, "I can't do that, the pine box thing is illegal in Illinois. But let me show you our cheapest casket."

    I knew I liked the guy.

  17. Karin --my respects to your family and for your loss....I had to smile when you mentioned John Phillip Sousa because my Uncle Jim -- probably a peer of your Dad's LOVED him. As a matter of fact, sooner or later at every family holiday, you could count on Uncle Jim to put on the best of JPS!! He took such delight in it, or in David Rose's recording of "The Stripper! HA! It was ironic because he was such a conservative guy....any way, maybe your Dad can look up my Uncle Jim Bower and even Mr. Sousa himself up there in the atmosphere! In the meantime I will play you this:

  18. Love it!

    My mother was charged with dispensing my father's ashes according to his wishes. After sitting in her living room in a grocery bag on the floor for two years, she finally planted him in a remote area of a forest, an hour away from her house, and marked the spot with a blue toothbrush. I kid you not. No love lost there, I'd say...

  19. My mother and dad did not talk about this issue... I thought they fear to talk about death...

  20. I am loving these stories, by the way. Being force fed h a hideous and inaccurate tribute video, assembling C/W dirges and getting depressed, selling the plots with the great view, building a lego cemetery,cheap caskets, the uncle who loved Sousa and The Stripper, and the blue toothbrush tombstone -- they're just brilliant and quite unforgettable.

  21. Karin, I think I can safely predict that you have not chosen Hardanger fiddle music for yourself, no matter how deeply Norwegian it is.

    My mother and I discussed these matters and she wanted cheap and simple, with burial next to my father in Colorado. She hated the state, but that was where he was from and where he was buried, so it was her "duty". When the time came, I had no tough decisions, but the cardboard box in a blue velvet sack stayed in my sweater drawer [Hi Mom! every time I opened the drawer] until the ground thawed in Denver.

  22. Just had the "talk" with my mother Tuesday.

    Sound advise Hiker (pun intended).

  23. Definitely great stories here, starting with yours. I haven't had any experience with this yet, so I appreciate the cautionary tales.

    The mentions of New Orleans music made me think of this:

    It's not a brass band, but it's soulful so it seems fitting. Singing doesn't start until 1:35 or so. Takes that long to quiet the crowd; it's Saturday night in a New Orleans club. I think it's worth the wait...

  24. Sorry, singing starts just shy of a minute...

  25. Oh, PA, I don't envy you that.

    Susan, I know, these stories -- it's practically a book already, isn't it? Including Doris's mother in the sweater drawer.

    And I do have another to add. My friend D, a fearless and bold woman for whom I have total respect, lost her husband to ALS last year. She was selling some property her husband owned before they married, and although she'd sent all the notarized and requisite forms to bank, she still received a form letter saying they'd have to talk to her husband before they could release the property. So she made an appointment, met with the bank manager, put the urn of ashes on on his desk and said, "You wanted to talk to my husband, so talk."

  26. Great story about your friend D! My granny arranged and paid for her own funeral but never told us the details, so it was a surprise that she'd ordered cremation with no service at all. My 4 male cousins were miffed at this, because they didn't have an excuse to take a day off work to attend - but they lied to their employers and took a day off anyway! I'm inclined to think that neat, lawned cemeteries for dead humans deprive the animal and plant world of habitat. They needn't - many old English churchyards have recently been left to get a bit wilder and become nature reserves. They could do this to parts of Mountain View and Forest Lawn - wouldn't it be lovely to have all those wild flowers and birds?

  27. my mother left instructions to "do what is cheapest". Box and burn was the cheapest. However, for an extra $50-75, we could "rent" a casket for her service and help my grandparents think we were burning a $10-15k casket. My grandparents were "so proud". My uncle and I tried not to giggle with their pride. You know, not proper and all at a funeral.

    Irreverence at death--I think I've shared the events of my grandad's funeral service at CoA's teeny space, teeny pews and large people leaning on said pews. He would have been laughing along with us. In the receiving line afterwards, I lost count at how many people said "I saw you bawling silently and wanted to comfort you.". It has been almost 19 years since we buried him but I'm not sure the inside of my cheek has recovered from my having bit the inside so hard while trying not to burst into laughter.

    I have the feeling that I may need to change the instructions I've left for my funeral---a march or something upbeat should be in order!

  28. Bellis---I'm not certain Mountain View could be more wild. We've had packs of wild dogs running thru (10+) as we placed flowers. We've had the wild parrots fly thru. We have had police chases THRU the gardens. Really not sure wildness is what my family needs there!!!!! ;-)

  29. What a great collection of stories here!

  30. I'm a fan of the bag pipes playing in the background at the cemetery they way they did for some of my in-laws and I think it's a really dignified and lovely way to be sent out. And you're not likely to get blind-sided by it.

    My father's third wife buried him instead of cremating him first and it really ripped me. I could barely stand it because I spent my whole life believing this would happen and when it didn't - well, lesson learned.

    Personally, I'm with Bellis on this as I would like to be sewn into a bag and then planted beneath a fruit tree or something similar although I would also like a monument, something massive and expensive. Yes, I want it all. I hope I won't inspire someone to use a toothbrush instead. Too funny!

    Florida Green Burial>

  31. The nitrogen in ashes is a good fertilizer.

    There's a coffin, too, but I couldn't find it.

  32. A great and humorous story about a usually serious subject. Loved it!

    It may be odd to pay for your own funeral, but I'm odd. My wife and I paid for ours a couple of years ago. I already know exactly where I'm going pass time after I go. Fort Rosecrans down on Point Loma is the place. If I'm going to spend eternity there, then I want a nice view and a sea breeze.

  33. Who wouldn't want to listen to Evita?

    '... the shooting sticks of the upper class aren't supporting a single ass that would rise for the girl ...'

    Lines like that don't come along every day. :-)

  34. Hah! I've only entertained what I want to happen to my earthly remains for like a minute or two before I lose all enthusiasm for that line of thought...

    (Wayne, "those lines don't come along every day." Promise?)