An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.
My wife and I visited my parents shortly before Thanksgiving. “I don’t want to make you sad,” was how my mother opened a conversation at breakfast one morning. I knew what was coming.
My father just turned 85 and my mother will be doing likewise about three months from now. Dad is nonchalant about getting older; his philosophy has always been that “it’s better than the alternative.” My mother, on the other hand, seems a bit obsessed about her funeral arrangements.
Mom has a notebook detailing her last wishes, and on this occasion, she wished to inform me that she has updated it. And also that she’s made a second copy in case something happens to the first. It’s starting to feel a little creepy.
Now, I know that many will find my mother’s initiative admirable. I would tend to agree if her instructions had something to do with, say, disposition of her assets (she says she doesn’t have a will) or even what type of casket to use or what music to play at her funeral.
No such luck.
My mother doesn’t care about any of that stuff. She says that no one but immediate family would attend her funeral anyway, so there’s no sense in spending money for a lot of worthless nonsense.
Mom’s funeral notebooks are primarily devoted to the minutia of how to have her body transported from California to her family burial plot in New York City. I’m talking about which airline to use, which funeral home to call on this end, which funeral home to call in New York, how to contact the cemetery to have them open a gravesite.
When I try to make sense of this, I remind myself that there is plenty of precedent going back millennia. After all, the Children of Israel honored Joseph’s wishes to bring his bones up from Egypt to be buried in the Promised Land. And that involved forty years of wandering in the desert, not making a reservation with United. But still. Is this really necessary, parents of mine? Yes, I know, Mom, you want to be buried next to your mother. I get it. Um, I think. Uh, why exactly do you insist on staying in California if you wish to spend eternity in New York?
I’m glad that my parents no longer have to deal with the winter weather that they so dislike, but really, why would an octogenarian elect to reside nearly 3,000 miles away from his or her final resting place of choice? To me, it’s simple. I have resided in California for nearly a quarter of a century, and here I will be buried. If California is good enough for me to live in, it’s certainly a good enough location for my headstone. I doubt that I will ever move anywhere else, but if I do, then just bury my carcass there in the local cemetery, please. Don’t even think of transporting my decomposing corpse on a final plane ride to a location thousands of miles away. That’s both insane and insulting.
As for my parents, they made New York their home for the first sixty years of their lives. In my opinion, if they want to spend eternity there, then they had no business moving to California. I think my uncle got it right. He lived down the street from us in New York, and at the age of 92, he’s still there.
What’s even crazier is that Mom has mentioned more than once that, were she terminally ill, she would attempt to travel to New York City so that she could breathe her last in close proximity to the cemetery.
There just isn’t a lot I can say when Mom starts in with this kind of talk and her notebooks. Yes, I assure her, I’ll honor your final wishes. Yes, I know it’s paid for. Yes, I’m glad that you have informed my sisters (since they will likely be doing most of the heavy lifting anyway).
Arguably, my father goes to the opposite extreme. When Dad is asked about his final wishes, he often says something about stuffing his body into a sack and throwing it in the river.
Maybe he’s on to something.
POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA
I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time. Funny how traveling can do that. Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are. For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas. Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see. I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West. Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.
Everything is so white here: The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun. It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.
For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.” If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions. Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.
Dad loves gallows humor. He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:
- Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
- What the doctor said
- “You hear who died?”
After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.
South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.
“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.
“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.
My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.
We attempt to put together our orders.
“Got any soup?”
“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”
“I’ll have oatmeal…”
“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”
“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”
“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”
It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.
We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out. Denny’s had been crossed off our list.
But tonight, something else is on my mind. It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago. After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.
But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!
The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery. It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car. Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom. His directions turned out to be perfect.
When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral. I was sent around to the other side of the building. There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us. A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form. I was to write down the names of the deceased. The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names. She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death. I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996. When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992. This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery. The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.
Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed. I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible. My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high. I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me. The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable. It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates. Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names. As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation: Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies. (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.) There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones. A cookie cutter memorial. Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information. Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self: Ask Dad about this. This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.” Gag. As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.” While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas. My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.
And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996. It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.
Summer, 1996. I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston. I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day. I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death. My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once. Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline. The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder. If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself. I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away. I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone. I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.
I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can. I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate. The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately. As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.
We’re done here. Let’s go home to California.
The past week or so has been an emotional minefield for me. The witch’s brew of unemployment and family problems is a bitter potion that goes down hard.
I survived six job interviews in nine days, spending three of those days on the road tracing the map of California for which this blog was named. I have already received a rejection notice from one of those employers. Of the five remaining, two were in-person interviews and three were phone interviews. I will undoubtedly be waiting for weeks to hear about callbacks for the in-person interviews. As for the phone interviews, those employers say they are sufficiently open-minded to hire a manager sight unseen. Theoretically, that means I could receive a “When can you start?” phone call at any time. Realistically, however, I’m not likely to hear from them for months, if at all. You might be surprised at how many employers never even bother to extend unsuccessful applicants the basic courtesy of a rejection email.
But it has been busy on the home front, too. We have spent weeks planning and preparing for a celebration in honor of Pastor Mom’s 70th birthday. Somehow, we managed to pick one of the hottest days of the year for the event.
Most of Pastor Mom’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were in attendance and a good time was had by all, despite the many challenges we faced in our efforts to pull it off. The plan was to serve spaghetti, salad and garlic bread in the church social hall, washed down with lemonade and sweet tea and followed by birthday cake and cookies. About 60 guests RSVP’d that they would be in attendance.
For starters, we were unable to cook the spaghetti and sauce in the social hall’s kitchen due to problems with our gas line. We’ve known about this issue for some time, but expected it to be resolved well in advance of the party. This did not happen; when the county inspector came out to approve the work that was done, he found leaks in the gas line. That meant that the gas could not be turned on and sent us straight to Plan B: Cooking the food in the parsonage, hauling it over to the social hall, and keeping everything warm in a series of crock pots. Thanks to an enormous amount of labor by my sister-in-law, my niece, my wife and Pastor Mom herself, we were able to make it work. Imagine working in a small kitchen without air conditioning on a 100°F+ day, with all the stove’s gas jets blasting under stewpots and the oven cranking away. Even the social hall was warm. We have a brand new air conditioner out there, but when the weather is this hot and the place is full of people, much sweating is bound to ensue.
As it turned out, we didn’t have nearly as many guests as expected. Only about 35 people showed up following a morning full of calls and texts from those who had to beg off at the last minute. We’re talking about people who woke up this morning to find their entire family ill with the flu. People whose vehicles broke down on the way here.
My wife and I headed up the freeway this morning to pick up the cake and cookies at Sam’s Club, located two towns away. We arrived past the appointed time, but the cake still wasn’t ready. The guy at the bakery department suggested that we finish our shopping, as the cake should be done in about five minutes. When we returned to the bakery, still no cake. We ended up waiting nearly 40 minutes for a cake we had ordered a month ago. Happily, Sam’s Club agreed to give us the cake for free. We checked out at the register and were heading for the car when my wife examined the receipt and noticed that we had been charged for the cake after all. We couldn’t understand how this happened when the bakery department had written NO CHARGE in large letters on the box. Back we went to demand a refund. “Oh, the clerk gets in trouble if he doesn’t scan the box,” was the explanation we were provided. “Bakery should have covered over the bar code.” Don’t you just love it when a store’s idea of customer service consists of making excuses?
We rushed home to get the cake in the refrigerator. The guests would begin arriving soon. Among those guests were my parents, who drove up from the Central Valley. They had initially made a hotel reservation, but then decided to just stay for an hour or two and head home. That meant more than seven hours of driving for them today.
Truthfully, we weren’t sure whether my parents would actually show up. Last week, we stayed over with them at their home for two nights on our way to southern California and back again. The problem is that my mother is highly opinionated and does not hesitate to say exactly what she thinks even when it is extremely rude to others. Let’s just say that she has made more than a few uncalled for remarks regarding my wife’s family. My wife, God bless her, held her tongue for as long as she could. Just before we left my parents’ house on Thursday, however, my mother started in again. My wife just couldn’t take it anymore and let my mother know how she feels about it. I believe that my wife was totally justified and I don’t blame her an iota. After all, we’ve been married for 16 years, and my wife has been heroically putting up with my mother’s sharp tongue for all that time. Sooner or later, things have to come to a head.
So I was a little surprised when one of my nephews informed me that my parents had arrived. And that’s when things turned rather sad for me. First, my wife’s great-aunt came over to our table to tell me that she had just received a call informing her that her son-in-law had been found dead on the floor. He was only 58 years old. I asked if he had been ill and she said yes, he had diabetes and one of his legs had already been amputated below the knee and he had heart problems and wore a pacemaker. I have always had a strong sense of empathy that makes me say “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” But in this case, the similarities to my own health situation (heart problems, leg problems, diabetes) made me feel as if I were looking in the mirror two or three years from now.
And, well, this was a seventieth birthday party. When you’re a kid, a birthday is exciting not only because of the gifts and all the attention fawned upon you, but also because a birthday means you’re one year closer to being able to do all the adult things you want to do. As the decades go by, however, birthdays begin to represent something entirely different: They mean you’re one year closer to the finish line. And the feeling is never stronger than when it’s a seventieth or eightieth birthday party.
My parents, who are both 80 years old, sat across from me at one of the long tables in the social hall. My father won’t admit it, but he is almost certainly in the early phases of Parkinson’s disease. His hands shake so badly and he has trouble keeping food in his mouth and off his face. My mother, who told me the heat was making her ill, didn’t want any food other than lemonade and a slice of birthday cake.
Then my father mentioned that at Pastor Mom’s 80th birthday party, ten years from now, he would be 90 years old and probably would be unable to drive. “You’ll have to come pick us up and bring us to the party,” he said.
“You mean you’ll have to dig us up,” my mother added.
“You may have to dig me up to drive you,” I responded.
“Nobody’s doing any digging,” my wife wisely added.
“I can dig it,” I retorted, smartass that I am, hoping to lighten the mood a little.
But the death in the family of my wife’s great-aunt, combined with the gallows humor at my parents’ table, had descended heavily upon me. I remembered what a wonderful time we all had at the eightieth birthday party for my wife’s grandmother. We had planned on doing it again for her ninetieth. She almost made it, too. She passed away just a few months shy.
I remember the times that my wife and I visited her grandma in the nursing home, how the staff would force her to get out of bed, how she would sit in a wheelchair in the hallway with nothing to do, how half the time she barely recognized us when we came in, how she begged and pleaded to get out of there and come home, and how near the end, Pastor Mom finally did take her home. And I wonder what will happen in the next ten years, whether my elderly parents aren’t already heading down that very same road, whether I will end up visiting them in a nursing home as well. I watch my father’s hands shake as I tell him about the rejection letter I received this morning, and I notice the black spots on his head where cancerous growths were recently removed for the third or fourth time. I wonder how long I will have him here and what will happen to my mother who can’t control her tongue after he’s not around anymore. Lord, you’ve got to help me, because I don’t know how to do this.
And, who knows? Maybe I won’t have to deal with any of this after all. Maybe my health problems will get the best of me and I’ll end up the same way as the son-in-law of my wife’s great-aunt. Maybe I’ll never get to find out how this story ends. And maybe that’s for the best. Because I don’t know that I have the emotional strength to bear it.
Because this is one movie in which there is never a happily-ever-after before the final credits roll.
My wife informed me yesterday that someone on Facebook is seeking donations for an online memorial to honor a deceased relative.
I do not even pretend to understand how this song goes. I plead ignorance as to what constitutes an online memorial and why it is necessary to collect money for it. I am guessing that there is some connection between the online memorial and the dear departed’s family offline. Perhaps funds are required to pay for the funeral of the deceased or to help the family cope with final medical bills or a loss of the family breadwinner’s income.
This reminds me of a phenomenon that I have often witnessed in both northern and southern California (but not in my native New York): Children and adults waving signs at intersections and street corners advertising homespun car washes being held to raise funds to pay for the funeral of a deceased family member. Typically, the entire family, from kids to grandparents, is out there in a store’s parking lot with buckets, rags and squeegee bottles filled with liquid soap. Whether the sponge-and-rag crew does a good job or not is almost beside the point. What really matters is the one holding the sign and the kid jumping up and down and waving his arms to attract the attention of captive audiences stopped at the red light. A common prop is an enlarged photo of the deceased mounted on a sheet of cardboard.
I can’t help but think that the dead guy (or woman) must be turning over in his or her grave with embarrassment. Oh, wait, I almost forgot — they’re not even in their graves yet. That’s what the car wash is supposed to pay for.
I wonder where they keep the corpse in the meantime. Is she still stuck at the morgue waiting to be claimed by the family? Or maybe stashed in someone’s garage? Every time I pass one of those U-Store-It places, I wonder whether they’ve ever found a body swathed in a shroud in the back corner of Unit 72. I can see the employees chatting in the front office now. “I say, Bertie, what do you suppose is that rank odor wafting out of Unit 72? You don’t fancy there’s cheese fermenting in there, now do you, bloke?”
Calling the story writers of Storage Wars: I think you’ve got your next plot development nailed down. I can see it now. During the auction, Dave Hester can yell “Nooooooope!” while Barry Weiss falls off his golf cart when he passes out from the fumes and Jarrod and Brandi bicker about how much to bid and whether a coffin would be likely to sell in their store. Fade to the car wash on the corner with the sign twirler displaying a photo of the dead guy.
But seriously, I can’t think of anything more tacky than raising money for a funeral. Well, maybe the decorations in fancy script affixed to the rear windows of automobiles: In Loving Memory of David, March 18, 1952 – July 21, 1993. Rest in peace, Daddy!” Someone ought to start marketing these. Just think, now you can always have your loved one’s headstone with you where’er you may roam!
It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for cash-strapped families who are faced with the sudden death of a loved one. But the whole car wash thing is nothing but a form of begging. I don’t see families with the chamois as any different than the panhandler with the styrofoam cup.
So what’s the answer? What’s an impoverished family to do when a family member suddenly casts off this mortal coil? In days gone by, I believe that churches stepped in to provide the deceased with a decent burial. But today, so many are not affiliated with any house of worship, and local churches tend to be so cash-strapped as to be without the means to offer such generous gestures.
Of course, this was less of an issue in the past, when funerals didn’t cost $10,000 or more. By the time you add up the costs of the casket, the embalming, the beautician, the burial plot, the headstone and the clergy, you’re talking about a lot more money than most of us have in a savings account or a coffee can.
I once asked my father what the morgue does with corpses that no one claims. He told me that in New York City, where he grew up, the deceased would be interred in a pauper’s grave on Hart Island in Long Island Sound. Many thousands are buried there in mass graves dug with prison labor. Not exactly what a loving family aspires to, but it caters to the needs of the destitute and those without families.
I have no idea what northern California’s equivalent of Hart Island might be, but I will tell you this: When I’m dead, whatever you do, do not go begging total strangers for money for my funeral.
As for my father, he tells me that when he passes on we should tie him up in a burlap sack and throw him in the ocean.
Um, need your car washed, mister?
On Sunday, I attended a funeral for someone who I did not have the privilege to know. She was the mother of one of our neighbors, the woman who lives just across the fence from the parsonage.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch the health of a parent fail so dramatically, but I feel encouraged about all the things that were done right. The neighbor’s mom died at home, not in some sterile, faceless hospital or nursing home. She spent her last days surrounded by the ones she loved. There were nurses who came in to help and to teach her caretakers how to use the medical equipment and feeding tubes that became necessary. And even when the funeral home people came to collect her body, they did so with dignity and, yes, caring. Unable to get her out on a stretcher, the funeral director carried her out, gently, in his arms.
Funerals tend to be all about memories and associations; we tell stories from our loved one’s life, look at photos and reflect upon the ways in which we are better people for having known the one who has been taken from us.
But we also reflect on our own mortality. At a funeral, we are faced with the fact that one of these days it will be our turn, our photos up there on the easel, our stories being laughed and cried over friends and family.
A funeral can help us turn introspective. What will we leave as a legacy when it’s our turn to go? If we’re not too happy about what we see in the mirror, we may wonder whether there’s still time to change, to become the kind of people we really want to be.
When we clean out the house of the departed, there are always knick-knacks and mementos to distribute, small tokens that may sit on a shelf to remind us of a loved one for years to come, or may be packed away in a closet to bring out on special occasions.
Is that all that remains of us after all the trials and tribulations of a lifetime? We hope that our influence and values will affect others positively long after we’re gone. I think of my grandfather, who had a profound influence on me when I was growing up. More than thirty years after his passing, I still remember his birthday every year and think of him often in the little things, such as when I find myself saying the same things he used to say. But who will remember him when I am gone? I have no children of my own, and my sisters’ children never had the opportunity to meet him. I think of my oldest nephew (whose name is somewhat similar to my grandfather’s) and doubt that he knows anything about his great-granddad.
Maybe I need to sit down with him and his sister and tell them some stories, bring out some photos. While there’s still time.
When we attend a funeral, it’s not about us; it’s about the one who we lost and whose memory we are now honoring. But as we hold hands and sing the hymns, we cannot help but reflect on the great chain of family and our place in it as time marches on, l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation.