Monday, October 14, 2013

Memories of Memorials

Louise continues her stay in New York, leaving me, Tom, to run roughshod over her blog.

In responding to yesterday’s blog, Heather writes, “Ignorant Question Alert: Memorial Services at the museum? I've never heard of this. Is this a Utah Mormon thing or do I just run in lower class circles? Now that I know this is possible, I want my Celebration of Life Memorial Party to be in the Museum, too!”

While I had not planned to raise the specter of where funerals and memorial services may or may not be held, I will say this: ­I am of the humble opinion, to quote a line from Promises, Promises, “It’s no one else’s business but our own.”  I am not a funeral or memorial service aficionado. I prefer to keep my distance. That is not possible, however. Friends die. Relatives die. And we attend whatever services are planned for them. I have now attended memorial services in the grand ballroom of a hotel, the Red Butte flower gardens, cemeteries, and, of course, churches. As bishop, I conducted services for adults, babies, and victims of shootings, accidental and intentional. Some were in the church, some were not. Some were Mormons, some were not. In matters of death and grieving, people choose whatever gives them comfort.

The most memorable funeral that I witnessed was for the Protestant sister of a member of my ward, whose name was Grace. The casket was open during the Protestant church services, after which the congregation was ushered out. When the chapel was nearly empty, the people in charge closed the casket. I was Grace’s bishop, and I knew this would not sit well with her. She had not said good-bye to her sister. And as I walked into the foyer of the church, I could hear Grace’s, 85-year-old alto voice at full strength: “Did they close the casket? I didn’t get to say good-bye.”

It was a sunny January day in Minnesota, the very coldest possible. I followed the entourage to the cemetery, where the casket was placed over the grave on the support frame and straps. Someone said a prayer. The air was clouded with our freezing breath. And then I heard Grace’s voice loud and clear, “I didn’t get to say good-bye.” Whereupon she threw herself on the casket and refused to get off, repeating, "I didn't get to say good-bye." 

It was not my business to take charge of the funeral. I was just a visitor, but I thought I should advise the funeral director how to resolve the situation. “Can you open the casket?” I asked.

“Yes, he said. “But the body will show blue and yellow spots in this sunlight.”

“Then I suggest,” I said, “that you open the casket and let her say good-bye to her sister.”

The director stepped up and told Grace he would open the casket so she could say good-bye. Grace stepped back. He lifted the lid. Grace reached in, pulled her stiff sister halfway out, gave her a kiss, and said, “Good-bye, dear.” She then laid her back into the casket. The director closed it, and it was finished.

As I was leaving the cemetery, I heard Grace’s brother, a grumpy old guy who never liked Grace, ask his wife, “Did she just kiss that damn thing?”

People know how they want their funerals. Let them be in cemeteries, chapels, hotels, museums, or football fields. Let them be in an opera house or concert hall. I’d like to have an orchestra play at my memorial service. I just haven’t figured out how to pull it off.

How do you want your funeral or memorial service? 


  1. Tom, I don't really know you or Louise, but that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I feel very weird admitting that.

  2. I want to "speak." I want to tell my family and friends how much I will always love them, and what a glorious life I had because they were in it! (I had better get it written out... You never know...)

  3. I have a friend who has said since high school that she doesn't want Ham-buns at her funeral (all good Christian Reformed funerals have a lunch of ham-buns and potato chips following). Also, I recently decided that at my funeral I want no regular lunch at all - just a long table full of delicious desserts.

  4. So wonderful and true that each person wants their own way of going out as each person wants to grieve in their own way. When my cousin died as a toddler I was in my early 20's and decided that for the funeral I needed to wear a head covering, I am lucky that no one in my family told me I was being weird and one of my friends let me borrow a beautiful vintage yellow scarf that I used to cover my head for the service.

  5. I love your post! We don't talk about these things enough and I am glad to hear that people do whatever they want/need to do at their services. I just want to hug you for instructing that coffin to be opened so her sister could say goodbye. No one attending will ever forget that service. I would love to have you as my bishop.

    The best service I ever attended was for an uncle in-law who died in a motel in Mexico while doing the wild thing with his floozy girlfriend. At the reception after his military style services, his old Air Force buddies got drunk and made jokes about him going on in a blaze of glory. After that, I vowed no matter what the truth was, Rob and I would never admit to either of us dying while in the act of getting frisky. We would simply say we died in our sleep. Lessons are learned everywhere, even at funerals.

    Not only do I not want a church service for my funeral (because really, haven't we all sat through too many damn meetings?) I want to order pizzas and root beer floats. I don't want my friends to have to work at my Celebration of Life Party by having to prepare food for the family afterwards. I also want to be cremated because I don't want to spend a ton of money being buried. I am fine with being scattered with the winds.
    As I mentioned yesterday, my husband is having None of This Nonsense.
    I did give him practical advice for my services. In the heat of our discussion of my Impending Doom ( because I am 46, in good health and you never know...) I spat, "Well, you better get a haircut and buy a new suit for my funeral because you need to be dating at my services. You won't make it a week on your own."
    Probably not my most sensitive moment of our 26 year marriage but sometimes truth needs to be spoken.

    What are you eating while Louise is away? Are you a drive-thru kind of guy or do you cook for yourself?

  6. I have not thought much about my memorial. But, now that I've read this post, I've put some thought to it. I want the memorial service at my house in the barn (cause you can fit more people in there) and I want there to be a taco truck afterwards to feed the crowd. And I want to be cremated and have my ashes scattered in Yosemite.

    And there should be music, hopefully guitars.

  7. Emily! Taco Trucks, guitars and a barn! Now I want that too! Maybe an ice cream bar, too....

  8. At a recent funeral, the family of the deceased requested the attendees write something about their loved one. I remembered a talk this man had given many years before in a sacrament meeting about the lint on the hair dryer that nearly caused a fire. His message of taking care of the little things had been timely and instructive as a new mother.

    I don't think much about my memorial or funeral though my mother's weighs on me daily. She has dementia and her circle of friends and family has condensed to a small handful. I know my mother would want a big Catholic funeral and mass but her adopted faith means nothing to any of her survivors. She would want a hymn "Just As I Am" sung. She would want us to have a luncheon afterwards with egg salad sandwiches and matrimony cake squares.

    So this is my question: do you honour the dead by meeting their requests or do you alter it to allow the survivors to pay tribute and honour their deceased loved one?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Bonnie I love your thought provoking question. Unfortunately experience with my own mother has taught me the importance of pre-planning. If you are in a position to work with her now to have everything planned and paid for before her passing, please, please do it. It is my conviction that we are put here on this earth to honor our parents and that includes ensuring that their wishes are carried out in death. We don't get to choose the circumstances of our birth but to some degree we can choose the circumstances of our death and what happens to our earthly remains. My sibling and I had to step in when my mother's husband (not our father, who had passed away many years prior) refused to honor her last wishes regarding her earthly remains (and the financial resources were there to ensure her wishes were carried out). So we, her children, stepped in and took on the financial part and ensured her requests were carried out. There was no question or hesitancy about it, we were going to honor her by honoring her wishes in death just as we had done all of our lives while she was living. Having gone through that, my husband and I have our funerals pre-paid and planned down to the music that will be played. No one will have to make decisions based on emotion. It's all in the planning. Best wishes to you and your sweet mamma!

  9. Well, now I have a quandary: opera house, or grand ballroom? I already have spoken up for cremation, and that my ashes be made into a firework. One of the spangles ones.

  10. Bonnie,
    That is an excellent question and the theoretical argument at my house. I want my party and he wants traditional church. Depends on if you decide funerals are for the living or for the dead.

    My mother -in-law is also declining due to dementia and her circle of friends is almost gone. While she was still 100%, she let us know that she wanted the full-on church service with lovely casket. It isn't going to happen. No one in the family has the resources to pay the estimated $10,000 for her preference. She is going to get what we can afford and I am sure her spirit will understand. Even if she doesn't approve from the Other Side, it doesn't matter. There is no money for her dream. It will be simple and heart-felt and that is what matters to those of us left behind to remember her.
    I hope you make peace with your mom's situation. I know it is stressful to consider.

    twebsterarmstrong - Fireworks! I love that! This post has given me so many great ideas for my someday funeral. I should start a Pinterest page about it. I don't want to forget any of this stuff.

  11. I guess in the end it's the people who are still living who will have the final say and sometimes money does come in to it. Several of your comments made me smile -especially about the advice to hubby to get a hair cut and buy a suit so he can start dating at the funeral :) It makes me think I'll check around at the next funeral to see if any of the bereaved are checking out the crowd.
    My mom and dad are in their eighties and their discussions always lead to who goes first. If my mom goes first, she has some specific ideas about what she would like to have happen, my dad teases her about what will go on since she will be dead and can't take charge. That said they have made preparations and everything is paid for as far as plots and such and provisions have been made for the rest.
    I have told my husband and kids that when I go I want them to dispose of me in the cheapest way possible, skip the memorial and take all our immediate family (hubby, kids and any daughter or sons - in law and grandchildren (so far it's just my hubby and four kids with one daughter-in-law coming) to Hawaii and party it up there. They can go to the beach and each say one thing I have done that has left a lasting impression and then go somewhere fun to eat. Should our brood grow so large before I die that the expense of Hawaii is too great I would go with Emily's idea of a big party and definitely music.
    Apparently Tom you have struck a chord. Louise will be proud of how well you are tending her blog. Good luck while she is gone - my father always lost weight when my mom went on trips, he doesn't know how to cook and would eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches the whole time she was gone. Hope you have better skills or more friends that invite you out to eat!

  12. All I can think about Mr. Plummer is Louise's body wrapped in a sheet with you driving down Redwood road to the crematorium in Ed's car. What a post!