Life is good, and so is death
Tuesday, September 03, 2013 3:20 AM
A few years back, an aunt on my mother's side died. She had never married, had no children, and no other surviving relatives in the vicinity. So my sister and I inherited the task of taking care of all her life's final details. Of course that included the funeral.
We spent a lot of time planning the service. She had been cremated, so there was no funeral director involved, and we were in charge of everything. To us, that meant we could even do something a little different. It started with the printed program: it was big, an 11x17-inch sheet folded in two, and we included a lot of pictures of her life on the front and back covers. We had divided the service into two parts, and inside, we listed the two sections: "Out of Love, Celebration!" and "Out of Respect, Tradition." When we had finalized the handout, I showed it to Friend Roger - he was not yet Spouse Roger - and he was a little concerned. He wondered if we were being serious enough. But we persevered.
During the celebration portion, we included things that would celebrate having had many wonderful memories of growing up with my aunt. One of those was of riding around with her in Beulah, her car. With a lot of cousins packed in, she had taught us many songs while she drove. So at her memorial service, we included a sing-a-long with many of her old favorites such as "I Been Workin' on the Railroad" and "You are my Sunshine."
When our celebration portion was finished, we turned the service over to the minister, who presided over the traditional part. At the end, the grand finale was bagpipes playing "Amazing Grace." And when the service was over, Friend Roger turned to me and said, "That was beautiful." His fears were for naught. My sister and I engaged in a little mutual back-patting and agreed we had actually enjoyed the process. One thing led to another, and we fantasized that we should start a funeral consulting business; we could call it "Way to Go."
The crematory had delivered my aunt's remains to my sister. At the time, I was impressed with a funeral director whom I thought had a sense of humor: her remains were delivered in a black-and-white plaid container. My sister put the container on a shelf in her study; eventually it would be buried in the family plot in our hometown. She told me that she talked to my aunt every once in awhile, and she guessed she would be rather shocked if one day my aunt answered back.
Now we have fast-forwarded a few years, and my aunt on the other side of the family died, also without children. Her husband, Uncle Jack, asked my cousin and I to take care of the music for her memorial service. We had already had the experience playing for her older sister's service in Chicago, and we were happy to be able to do it again.
We were a good team: we planned and we practiced. We did everything with both piano and organ, and just like we did in Chicago, we rocked that church. Someone told us afterwards that they were sure that organ and piano had never produced such great sounds before. But it wasn't about us: we were there to celebrate - in the way that we could do it best - having known and loved our aunt.
Both aunts had served in the military in World War II, but years ago I didn't know that aunt was entitled to military honors at her service. My California aunt received them, and it was even a more fitting end to the service than the bagpipes. Today, I got a note in the mail from my cousin. She said, "I really enjoyed playing with you. What a great send-off for Aunt Lillie!"
Neither aunt had talked with anyone about their wishes for their last services - funeral or memorial - that would mark the end of their lives; that is something that ideally everyone would do right down to where, what music, etc. In both cases, we were sort of guessing at what they would have wanted.
Since that day, years back, when my sister and I fantasized about starting Way to Go, a few companies have sprung up to help people in planning for that great event. But we won't need the services of a company like Way to Go. Since I love to plan things, I see my own service as one last chance to organize an event; Spouse Roger will never have to guess. (I will admit to getting funny looks when I asked about prices, etc., to use facilities for my own memorial service!)
This morning, I recalled that I have forgotten to ask lately if my other aunt's container ever got to its final resting place. Maybe my sister is still talking to her.
Editor's note: This column was originally printed in May of 2007. Dr. Jan Myer noted that she does not know if her Aunt Myrt still languishes on her sister's bookshelf!)