The Grim Reaper Is Increasingly Private
“There will be no visitation … In accordance with her wishes, no funeral service will be held … funeral rites will be private … cremation and disposal of cremains will be private.”
Times have changed.
Back in 1956, my father died in his sleep in Philadelphia. An autopsy was needed to determine that a stroke had caused his death. Then the body had to be shipped back to Warren by train.
There were three days — yes, three days — of calling hours at the funeral home, followed by a funeral Mass at the old St. Joseph Church on Beech Street in Warren, and burial in St. Joseph’s Cemetery seven days after his death.
I was 13 at the time. Dad’s death was a jolt, so my memory is hazy on some details. As I recall, it was a week later, two full weeks after his death, before Mom would permit me to turn on the TV or radio.
That was a period of mourning.
No, wait. That’s not a period. That is a century, by comparison with what seems to be the emergence of a new, private norm in the disposition of our bodies after we are done using them.
I pay more than passing attention to this topic because, at age 75, not a week goes by that I do not note the death of a high school or college classmate or contemporary or a friend in my age group made in DuBois or Brookville where I have since lived.
Even that noun, “death,” has changed.
Back in 1956, Dad “died.” Even in 1982, at age 80, Mom “died.”
These days, the person of interest “passed,” or “went home to Jesus.”
Generally speaking, people are resistant to change. We like things as they are, as they have always been.
Or so we say.
On the other hand, I don’t see people rushing to buy rotary dial telephones. Out of habit, some of us speak of “dialing” another person’s telephone number, even though most of us just push “call” or “send” after locating the person on a contact list. I vividly recall the telephone numbers prevalent in my childhood, but I can’t recite from memory the telephone numbers of any of my six children. I don’t push number buttons to call them. I just find their names on my contact list, then hit “send.”
“I don’t like change” seems to be a very selective attitude.
We still die as we always did, though science has substituted flat-lined brain waves for the absence of pulse and breathing that used to be the determining standard.
And we still call a funeral director, partly because we don’t really know what else to do when someone dies, and partly because, for good and solid reasons (disease prevention, verification of no foul play), there are legal requirements associated with pronouncing someone dead and disposing of a body.
Not long ago, I propounded my own post-mortem possibilities to my grown children. My wife and I married just 12 years ago. Both of us have now-grown children by previous marriages. So the customs and rituals that my children use are somewhat different from her approach. She wanted some guidance.
The responses ranged from, “Do whatever you want,” (Interesting, since, by definition, at the time of that decision, I won’t be wanting anything) to “You’re going to have a headstone, aren’t you? (I detected a chuckle as that child secretly thought about goofy epitaphs suitable for Dad) to an all-one-word: “Idonwannatalkboutit!”
My wife prescribes cremation for her own situation when that time comes. I own two cemetery lots, bought decades ago. Each year, just before Memorial Day, I dutifully make the rounds of cemetery graves, planting flowers and grooming tombstones for parents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, as needed.
That is a comforting way for me to reconnect with the memories of loved ones.
But these days, I also reconnect with those same loved ones every day or so, as their scanned-in photos pop up on the slide show that is the screen saver on my laptop computer. Too many old photos still reside only in scrapbooks or boxes, unseen from one year to the next, but I am chewing away at digitizing them.
So, soon, I won’t need a gravesite or a tombstone.
Will I want them?
“For the times they are a-changing,” says my generation’s poet laureate, Bob Dylan.
We ought to talk about this among our families, I think. We also ought to spell out our preferences and designate decision-makers. Death rubs emotions raw and strains sensibilities.
Better, I think, to have matters laid out now. If some family members disagree, they can take it up with me now, rather than burdening the poor soul who, as executor, has to untangle my affairs for the last time.
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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: email@example.com.