So here’s something that doesn’t happen every day. My mother threw a surprise funeral at me.
The day started like any other day, normal, ish, or what passes for normal for me, now. I got up, took a shower, went downstairs, packed up my laptop for my daily trek to the library to use their free wi-fi to troll for jobs.
“Dear, I was hoping you’d go with me to the funeral home this afternoon, around 2:00,” my mother very nonchalantly called out from the dining room.
My mother’s had a slew of funerals recently. Friends and family have been dropping like dominoes. I presumed another one of her friends died and she wanted me to accompany her to the visitation.
“Okay, Mum, who died?”
“I made an appointment for myself.”
Scratch of record.
“Huh? Is there something you need to tell me?”
“You know I’ve been wanting to get this done since before your dad died. I don’t want to wait any longer.”
“This” is funeral pre-planning. My mother was all over it for several years before my dad died but he wouldn’t have anything to do with it. It creeped him out and he had a sort of denial issue. He didn’t think he was immortal but he thought he had loads of years left to take care of “it.” And he felt that planning your own funeral is like throwing yourself a birthday party: Tacky and kind of weird. My mother did the research and presented all the practical and emotional reasons why pre-planning is a good idea but he wouldn’t budge on the issue. My mother wasn’t standing with hands on hips harrumphing “I told you so” when he died without pre-planned “arrangements,” but she was determined to make her “arrangements” so when the time comes no one will have to go through what we went through in the hours and days after my dad died: A bunch of trips to the funeral home, loads of forms and phone calls, decisions to be made and far too much conjecture over what “he would want.”
Almost two years has passed since my dad died. (which I cannot believe, grief is super weird that way) And my mother has yet to make her “arrangements.” She didn’t want to go alone to make the plans, but she didn’t want to “put anyone through that.” At one point there was even a deal struck with a friend: They would go with each other to pre-plan each others’ funeral. Her friend’s children intercepted, though, and my mother was left without a funeral planning partner. It’s been weighing heavy on her mind. She talked about it sometimes, said she wanted to get over there and take care of it, hinted to me and my sister, talked to a cousin about it, we all told her we’d go with her.
Apparently she decided the time was right and since I’m here, with her, now, she struck while the iron was hot, made an appointment and sprang it on me just like that.
I’m from a super small town. We know the family who owns the funeral home. Which makes the whole thing even more surreal.
Upon arrival at the funeral home we were greeted by the daughter of the funeral director. She’s in the family business, the next generation. She’s making a few changes. She goes by the title “Memorial Specialist.” Call yourself whatever you want, you still work at a funeral home managing funerals which makes you a funeral director. She had a baby a few months ago. She was armed with photos and a video on her iPhone. And a lengthy story about the labor and delivery. Yes. We were there to plan my mother’s funeral and spent 20 minutes talking about a baby’s birth. Cue The Circle of Life. The funeral director and his wife joined us and much chat and town gossip was exchanged.
And, oh yeah, we planned my mother’s funeral. With my basically healthy mother leading the meeting.
Yes. It’s as morbid as it sounds. Yes. It’s as bizarre as it sounds. Yes. It’s as depressing as it sounds. Yes. It’s as surreal as it sounds.
And yes, it’s as pragmatic, thoughtful and mind-easing as it sounds.
We said, "Do exactly what you did for Dad.” The first thing we discovered is that in just two years' time the cost has increased $1,500. Upon this discovery my mother was both smug and irritated. She shot simultaneous “I told you so” and “did you hear that?” looks at me.
The pre-payment/arranging makes financial sense. We get it. Thank you friendly neighborhood funeral director, erm “memorial specialist.” We don’t need a Power Point presentation with pie charts and bar graphs to show the cost savings. Death is big business and we’re merely vulnerable pawns in the game. If you go in with that attitude, all business and cynical of the industry, you’ll get through the whole thing unscathed.
That is until it’s time to go over the obituary details. Much to my surprise my mother pulled out a handwritten obituary scribed on three pages of legal paper. Wow. She really has been thinking about this a lot. Alrighty then. Did you ever have the class assignment of writing your own obituary? Usually it’s a junior year English class assignment. It’s not easy, especially when you’re in high school. I tried it a few times since and it doesn’t get easier, for some of us it gets a heck of a lot more difficult than others. In my case, not a lot has changed since my high school version and that’s the really disturbing part. Still single, still childless, still leading what on paper looks like a pointless, meaningless existence, except now I’m preceded in death by my father. My mother, though, my mother wrote three swutting legal pad pages of an obituary. She handed it over to the funeral director, erm, “memorial specialist” and said, “I found a book in the library on obituaries. The kids can change it or update it if they want. They might move or get married or have kids…” She was talking about all of her kids and grandkids but staring straight at me. Okay, I get it, okay? I look like a total loser in your obituary. I need to get my life together. I get it. Again, if you can focus on the life aspect, all the details of life and how it’s life affirming to reflect on your life then it’s not so awful. I guess.
That is until it’s time to go into the casket room to make The Choice. That’s the part I was dreading most.
One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do was choose a casket for my father. Obvious reasons, of course, but compounded by the alarming similarities between buying a casket and buying a car. There were no plaid polyester sportcoat wearing desperate jerks saying, “What do I have to do to put you in this casket today?” but…close. You have to choose wood or metal, and within those choices there are several levels and price ranges. There are showy customized Cadillacs, standard simple Chevys, fuel efficient practical Hondas and utility all terrain Hummers. The funeral director, erm, “memorial specialist” leads you in, points out the wood and metal areas, shows you how to read the price cards and then leaves you alone to wander the floor. Just like at a car dealership. They step aside, let you get a feel for what you like but they’re there, always ready to answer questions and pounce on the sales opportunity. We went with a mid-range Oldsmobuick for my dad. I say “we” but not in the literal sense. It was my mother and me who were there to make the choice, my brother and sister weren’t there, I had to snap a couple photos, text them and cell phone conference with them about the pros and cons of the models under consideration. The whole experience reminded me so much of visiting a car dealership that I giggled at how my dad would have thought the same thing. The whole time we were looking at caskets and vaults I was thinking of how he taught me how to navigate the tricky mine-filled turf of the car dealership. Never, ever show enthusiasm, make a big show of pointing out all the aspects you don’t like, take a long, detail driven look at the sticker, act unimpressed, choose a few options you don’t like, make a big fuss-budgety show about getting out a calculator and then recalculate the sticker price minus the options you don’t like, take a look under the hood, smirk, stand back and focus on a spot on the side, hone in on it, scrutinize it, mention the updated styling on a competing model and the better trade reviews of said competing model and then…walk away. Just walk away.
Unfortunately when my dad died we didn’t have the option of just walking away from the casket and vault showroom. We had to make a decision right then. We had to decide and purchase right then. My dad was dead and lying on a slab waiting for us to decide on a less sterile and more comfortable place to lie down. Forever.
And now, two years later, there we were in the same showroom shopping for my mother’s casket and vault. This time we had time to play the game, to scrutinize and just walk away. You don’t have to buy your casket and vault from the funeral home. Costco sells them for crying out loud. But. It’s a heck of a lot easier if you do buy it at the funeral home. My mother and I looked into buying the casket elsewhere. There are transfer issues and in some cases even storage issues. We found it’s not worth saving $300 on the sticker price because of all the additional fees and logistic issues.
My mother was thoroughly pragmatic about all of it. I was awed and proud of her. And embarrassed. Her Scot showed in trying to bargain with the funeral director, erm “memorial specialist” regarding the interior of one of the caskets. Sure, my mother had a point, we didn't care for the display interior and since there is no urgency in getting the casket ordering one with the different, less fancy interior shouldn't cost more. In the end we found one she liked. I liked it, too, (inasmuch as you can "like" your mother's casket). But then she got all bothered by the fact that it was $400 more than what my dad's casket cost. She thought "they" should spend the same amount on their caskets and she doesn't like the idea that hers cost more than his. Seriously.
And there's the small town social issue, too. If her casket and funeral look more "showy" than my dad's, well, you know. That's not cool. People will talk. Small town.
Ultimately I convinced her it was worth the extra $400 because the interior is a better color for her and she'll look better in it than the less expensive one she was considering. Yes. I stood in a casket showroom deliberating between casket interiors convincing my mother to spend $400 more than the cost of my dad’s casket because the interior is a better color for her. Bizarre moments of my life for $500, please Alex.
She's also bothered that they won't guarantee the hairdressing fee. She pre-paid $45 which is the hair styling rate now, but that's one fee that’s not guaranteed because obviously hair stylists' rates increase. If it's 20 years from now who knows what it'll cost to get her hair done? Nonetheless she argued that she only spends $17 to get her hair styled now, not $45.
“I don’t go to the [fancy salon], Marge does a better job for half the price,” my mother leaned in conspiratorially to the funeral director’s daughter, as if she was letting her in on a big deal, an insider trading tip.
“Yeah, but Mum, Marge doesn’t do dead people’s hair and even if she did I’m sure she’d charge more than $17,” I interjected, completely embarrassed by my mother’s frugality over her would-be final hair style.
My mother wouldn’t let it drop. And yes, yes, she has a point. The funeral people kept pointing out that she’s paying “today’s rates” for a funeral that could take place 20 years from now, and the savings are exponential. My mother doesn’t pay $45 to get her hair styled now so the exponential rate is skewed.
By her calculations the funeral home hair stylist is currently charging $28 too much, enough to pad the exponential inflation between now and whenever my mother gets her final hair style.
When the funeral director’s daughter tried to explain the details of dead hair styling my mother shut down. She went stubborn and didn’t want to hear reason or reasons. This is what differentiates funeral directors, erm, “memorial specialists” from car salesmen. A car salesman senses when a potential sale is shutting down and the car salesman will back off and give in, throw the car purchaser a bone, free undercoating or mudflaps in order to keep the sale. The funeral director’s daughter either didn’t sense my mother’s shutting down and how close she was to just walking away, or, the funeral director’s daughter didn’t care. She knows she’ll get my mother in the end, one way or another. Pay now, pay later, whatever, ultimately the funeral home will get the sale.
My mother then went down the road of "I don't really need to get it done anyway, just make sure it's combed, just take that out of our bill, I don't need anyone to style my hair when I'm dead."
I kid you not, a) my mother's too cheap to get her hair fixed for her own funeral and b) she found a way to embarrass me at the funeral home while pre-arranging her funeral.
I finally said I'd pay for any additional hair styling fee that may be incurred.
"I'll pay to get your hair done when you die, okay? I'm not having visitation and a funeral with you lying there with your hair not done."
“When it looks like I’m checking out call Marge and have her come to do my hair. It usually lasts three days. That should get me through visitation and the funeral. No one sees the back, anyway.”
“Okay, Mum. I’ll do that.”
Yeah. Big fun.
Afterward she was still fussing about the cost, wondering how to shave off a few dollars here and there in the funeral package so that it would equal the amount spent on my dad's funeral. “You can buy a guestbook somewhere else, you don’t need to spend $75 on theirs” “Can’t you print the memorial cards on your nice printer? That would save $150.” “I bet if we call the casket company directly we could bargain a better deal on that interior we liked. We could use our own pillow. You know I like my own pillow anyway.”
She also has a few choice words about how the funeral home gets to "work" her money until she dies. Keep in mind, my mother is friends with the funeral director and his wife. She sputtered about how while she wants it done and paid for now, the funeral business is all a racket with profiteering ghouls taking advantage of the vulnerable bereaved. Then she went on to say how nice our "memorial specialist" is and how adorable the new baby is and how they're such a lovely family.
Still. I'm glad it's done and I know (apart from the financial aspects) my mother is relieved and happy to have it done and paid for and all planned. Even if the funeral home is working her money from now until she dies, it's like life insurance: It's there, it's done, do it, forget about it and reap contentment.
Throughout the whole experience I made myself go void of emotion. “This is a practical, logical, mature thing to do. Focus on the practicalities, the reasons for pre-planning, instead of on the fact that you’re sitting in a funeral home discussing your mother’s funeral with your basically healthy mother.” Because of and in spite of her reasons for wanting to pre-plan I’m proud of my mother. Dealing with your own death is probably the most life-affirming thing you can do. Yes, there is now a file at the funeral home with my mother’s name on it. Yes, there is a casket and vault with my mother’s name on it. Yes, there is an obituary written and a photo on file for the paper. Yes, yes, yes, it’s all very morbid and depressing. But my mother is still very much alive and sleeping much better knowing “it’s all arranged” and paid for and when she dies us kids won’t have to go through “that” again. And, she has exactly what she wants, there will be no conjecturing about “what she’d want.”
And think of the money she’s saving. Nothing says, “I’ve got a lot of life left to live” like getting a good deal and saving money.
Labels: funeral preplan, funerals, Mum