My father-in-law, Jimmy, and I, spend a lot of time together. A lot. As a blended, inter-generational family, it's a lot of togetherness and no shortage of stories. Many Friday evenings, we sit around just reminiscing. Last night's family story time was all about funerals. How morbid, you may think. But I actually fancy myself not only a professional eulogist, from the number of eulogies I've given, but also an excellent, go-to girl for funeral planning. I have had very early and profound experiences with dying and death, and obviously funerals. My father-in-law and I still joke about some of our more memorable funeral home experiences.
When my beloved mother-in-law passed away, I tagged along with Jimmy to help with arrangements. We did the traditional funeral home admissions process, I like to call it, filling out forms, choosing prayer cards, coordinating services, but the elephant in the room was the Casket Showroom. I knew I had to go with him there and dreaded it. He too, had shared that he wished they had taken care of this detail many years earlier so emotion and grief would not interfere with the decision making.
"Don't worry, Jimmy. I'll help be the voice of reason," I assured him.
When we first walked into the room, similar to a car showroom, the highest-end casket was prominently featured. It was a beauty. Impressive. Finest wood, plush interior, beautiful trimwork. Jimmy was entranced and actually stood there for an uncomfortably long period of time.
Finally, I interrupted any rationale he was trying to process in his mind, "Jimmy, that casket is $65,000. If you buy that, it better have satellite TV, a wet bar, room service and a bathroom because because that's where the rest of family is gonna put you, if you even think of buying it."
Jimmy snapped out of it and chuckled and we were able to continue on to pick out a reasonable, yet beautiful resting place for his beloved.
Just a few years ago, Jimmy and I were at it again. This time burying his late wife's aunt, who we had cared for in her final years at a nursing home. Aunt Grace was a very, very simple woman. Devout and prayerful, she was a former Franciscan nun, who adhered so strongly to St. Francis' teachings, she didn't pull covers over herself in bed and thought air conditioning was something St. Francis would have met with disapproval.
Aunt Grace and I grew very close over her final years. I would cook her eggs and toast with a cup of black coffee and she would say, "Thank you for your kindnesses" and I knew she really meant it. She had lived alone most of her life and I think her declining health frightened her after so many years of independence. She found such comfort in her faith, I was almost jealous watching her peacefully sit in a chapel praying. I'd ask her how found that peace and she'd say, "Oh, it's so easy. Just let it be and He takes care of it. That's how I found you, you know."
Aunt Grace died very peacefully on New Year's Day just a few days shy of her 96th birthday. Since I knew Aunt Grace's time with us would be short, I had already started the funeral home admissions process, so they were all prepared when I made that final call. Hers was a fairly uncomplicated file but I had left one detail unattended.
The day after her death, Jimmy and I went to the funeral home to pick out the urn. We were greeted by the funeral home director, all dressed in his suit, with the appropriate words of condolence and sorrow. It was sad. I was sad. But the reality was, I wasn't actually really that sad. Aunt Grace had lived a wonderfully long, very healthy life and had shared many gifts. It was not a tragic passing, in my mind, it was the circle of life and it was really okay. But suddenly, sitting with this funeral home director, I became almost uncomfortable with my comfort level.
Just like the Casket Room years earlier, there was an Urn Room and now it was time to go there.
As the Director led us into the room, he said, "I know this is difficult. Please, take your time. Take however long you need to decide. When you're ready, I'll be in my office."
I looked at him most sincerely, smiled and said "Thank you," as he closed the door.
And with that door closing, Jimmy and I were left in total silence with shelves full of urns.
After about 3 minutes of no one speaking, I turned to Jimmy and said, "What's the cheapest urn here?"
That immediately got Jimmy perusing the shelves. "Umm, wow! Look at this one! It's $2,000! It's got an eagle engraved on it," as his eyes grew huge.
"No, stop looking at them! Don't get attached. Look at the price tags and find the cheapest one," I whispered.
"Here it is. $210. Simple pine with a photo slot," he exclaimed, as if he had just won a game of Bingo.
"$210?! For that? I could go to the craft store and with a coupon get a great pine box myself and decorate it," I said, a bit louder than Jimmy cared for.
"You're not an authorized urn manufacturer. They have rules," he shouted.
"Actually, I do know a little something about this. The cemetery told me you could use a Ziploc for the ashes since they're buried in a liner," I replied with my know-it-all look.
"Remind me to take your name off the list of people handling my affairs. I can't believe you just said Ziploc!" he retorted, disgusted with me.
Defending myself, I replied, "I don't make these things up. I was told that by someone in charge."
"Well, this one is the cheapest and it's good," he said.
"Great, that's the one then. She didn't want money spent and I can type up the Prayer of St. Francis and slip it in the frame with photos of the kids behind it. We're done. Let's go," as I started for the door.
Jimmy grabbed my arm and said, "But, we've only been in here five minutes. Don't you think we should wait a bit?"
I hesitated, "I don't know. What's the rule?"
"Don't you know? Is there a rule?" he asked.
"Do we look uncaring if we take five minutes to pick out the cheapest urn?" I wondered out loud, "Like we didn't love her because we didn't buy the engraved eagle?"
"The eagle is nice," Jimmy said.
"No, we can't waiver. We've got to stick to the agreement. She wanted the least expensive. This one is nice and no one will ever see it six feet under."
Sensing we were on hidden camera, Jimmy and I stood staring at each other another minute until we burst into laughter. "This is stupid," he said, "Let's just go order it now."
We both took a deep breath, gathered ourselves and exited the Urn Room to the Director's Office. Once again, he greeted us with the remorse and concern that only a funeral director can give. "Have you made a decision on Grace's final resting place?"
I looked over at Jimmy thoughtfully and replied, "Yes, we have. We would like the.....the ummm....the..." suddenly fumbling my words, realizing that I never looked at the name of the urn we picked out, only the price and I couldn't well say out loud - "We'll take the $210 dollar one."
Coming to my rescue, Jimmy cut in and said, "The simple pine one. She had been a Franciscan nun and would have wanted that."
Jimmy for the save. What a relief.
"Ah, yes, that's a beautiful one. Fine choice. We will take care of everything," he said with a smile.
And I sighed a big sigh of relief and said, "Thank you for your kindness."
When Jimmy and I walked out, that's when I finally did cry.
A week later I picked up Aunt Grace and brought her home until her burial date. She sat in dining room, overseeing the kids' homework time and meals.
One night Jimmy said, "Maybe we should move Aunt Grace for a bit, so she gets a different view?"
"Good idea," I replied as I shifted her around.
"Better than the eagle, definitely better," he said with a smile.