A funeral may be one of the most striking symbols of the human condition. Every tribe in human history is marked for its cultural attention to the death of a fellow member. As far as we know, no other species experiences the psychological loss that human beings do in the death of a loved one, or member of the pod. ‘The Funeral’ marks this passage and also represents an important marker in the human journey with grief.
Even before she contracted cancer Marlene was never as interested in the subject of death and dying as I am. Maybe she was fearful of it and pushed it way. Certainly she thought I was morbidly interested. But for me it’s a complex phenomenon of self-awareness, our place in the life cycle, the psychology of consciousness, and even of meaning. I always held a certain fascination for cemeteries, especially older ones with centuries of history lying at my feet. Marlene was mildly alarmed when I used to take my 6-year old daughter and our first poodle, Winston, for a walk in the old and neglected Oakville Cemetery by Sixteen Mile Creek where we lived. The pastoral park-like settings with ancient trees are very restful and appealing to me. Little Lake Cemetery in Peterborough Ontario, where my parents and grandparents, and great grandparents, are buried, as are Marlene’s parents, is iconic in this respect.
For years I speculated about where I should like to be buried. Marlene never shared this fascination. She merely wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered on water. She was not specific about what water but she was clear that she wanted her son to do it. I guess she didn’t trust me.
She never saw the point of a marker stone. Philosophically I have to agree with her, because in the fullness of geologic time the marker of our passing is likely to be very short-lived. The pyramids have lasted 7000 years but few other graves have come close, and as against 4 billion years of celestial existence, and another 4 billion to come, even 7000 years is as nothing.
I’m not sure this was Marlene’s thinking but the futility of it all is noted.
Still, as her own death approached, the problem of marking her life became more and more urgent. We needed to make some decisions, and Marlene was still avoiding them. Until weeks before her death. I had been secretly doing my research, and preparing, but I needed her participation, or at least her acquiescence. It was the Palliative Care Social Worker who convinced her that she was unfairly burdening me with these final arrangements. When she accepted to join in these discussions it was like a weight had been taken from both of us.
The cremation decision was the easy part. The urn to put her ashes in, not so much. I finally chose a wonderful round black granite urn, carved with a ‘Group of Seven’ scene of a lone wind-swept pine tree. Marlene liked it very much. But I was never sure what her deeper thoughts were. Maybe her nod and a smile was as deep as it got. That urn was so beautiful it created a new problem for me: I couldn’t see burying that piece of art for eternity.
We agreed that Pinecrest Cemeterymade the most sense from a geographical perspective – most of the immediate family lived in the west-end of Ottawa. I had been to a funeral at Pinecrest Cemetery 25 years previously and never been back, though I drove by it on my daily commute. I felt no attraction to this hot and barren field. I overcame my resistance and went to visit it. Turned out to be much more tree filled and peaceful than I had remembered, though that might be more the result of 25 years of change than faulty memory. I visited the Funeral Director and the Cemetery Director (same place, different roles), made and paid for the funeral, selected a plot under a mature spruce tree and designed the engraving on the black granite headstone. I was relieved. I told Marlene about my decisions and she agreed. She especially liked my theme and rationale – ‘Never Alone’. She even asked to be driven there to see the site, but by then she was too weak for the drive.
Next step in the funeral planning was the funeral service itself. And the Eulogy. I decided the order of service with the help of my pastor friend who would conduct the service, and selected the music. Deciding the music was rather easy: I had been thinking about it for years. I shared all this with Marlene. She didn’t like one of the songs I had selected so I changed it up, for the better.
You can go here (Permavita) if you are curious to see the Order of Service.
Now for the eulogy. Being the self-described word merchant that I am this should be easy. But it wasn’t. I have delivered many speeches in my professional career. I was apparently very compelling in my speeches at the kids’ weddings. I wrote a brilliant eulogy for my Dad, though I bawled all the way through it. This is regrettable as I’m not sure anyone got what I was trying to convey: talk to your parents while you still have time.
I had a theme for Marlene’s eulogy – Surprise – all I needed to do was write it.
And wait for Marlene’s date with eternity.