Monday, May 3, 2010

How Beltane got me to thinking about death

Warning:  If reading about death or funerals gives you the heebie-jeebies, you might want to skip this post.

For all sorts of reasons - my Mother’s failing health, the fact that I fell on Friday night and hit my head on a rock, all the weird health issues we both confront every day, attendance at a huge ancient and very spiritual Celtic/pagan ritual that had us both thinking about our heritage, and other things - David and I were discussing our personal funeral preferences on Saturday night.  Weird I  know.

 It wasn’t morbid in any way, but a desire that someone understand each of our personal ideas about transition, death, and funerals so that whoever has the responsibility  might try to implement them in the best way possible.  Sort of funny when you think about it since neither of us holds a traditional Christian belief in the after-life or resurrection or any of that nonsense (yes, I called it nonsense for that it was I believe it is - no more factual than the belief of some cultures that I might come back as a cat or even more farcical that there is some great being that actually has the time and desire with all the vast universe out there to care what actually happens to little ol’ insignificant, dot of dust in the cosmos, me.)

Both of our most recent close experiences with death ritual, my father’s and David’s mother‘s funerals, were troubling, unsatisfactory and definitely not comforting for either of us.  Well, except for David finally having an opportunity to say in public during his mother’s eulogy that she once threw a plate of spaghetti at him and then became angry when it hit the wall instead of his head and to tell the story of how she was braless in the photo of her high school softball team. Both good sharings of stories of her life and neither dwelling on whether her death had meaning and if so, what it was.  Oh, but there was a lot of that on either side of the eulogy.   It was like a visit to Southern Baptist heaven - definitely not a place  I would want to spend eternity. 

 As we talked about it we both realized that the best funerals, if you will, that we had ever attended were celebrations with good memories, lots of laughter, sharing, caring, meaningful music ( which generally means music that had been meaningful to the person we were remembering) - in short, about our loved one rather than those left behind to mourn or about religious myths or beliefs that may or may not be shared  by everyone sharing the death experience or concentration on what’s next other than wonderful memories, or anything like that.  Certainly the lost friend or family member will be missed but wasn’t it great when they were around?  Hey, do you remember when….?  Those are the things that bring about true resurrection of the soul - those times that were shared that will be forever memories.

Our discussion  got me to thinking about my Dad’s funeral and doing that always puts a knot in my stomach.  I miss him very much and I think about him often.  I haven’t had a desire to talk to  him since I don’t believe there is anyone to talk to and I definitely don‘t want to go to the cemetery where his rotting body is entombed in concrete and some kind of once beautiful wood with brass handles that by now are certainly green.  But I do often ask myself what his thoughts or advice would have been during his life. When I think back on his funeral all I remember is how very uncomfortable I was during the entire experience --  People filing past the flesh and bone casing that had held his soul, his energy, his spirit, looking down at that pasty, makeup covered face not knowing that beneath his clothes were bare spaces where bone and tissue had been removed, the only parts of his body we were able to donate, his organs too badly damaged by his stroke.  People I had known all my life touching me in mourning , talking to my mother who was too confused to comprehend fully what was going on, most there because they truly respected my Dad , some there out of responsibility, some there from curiosity having heard stories of how emotionally difficult things had been in our family in the past few years.  I hated it all.  Nothing of what I think, feel or believe was represented in what for me was a grotesque ritual that did nothing to provide any true comfort to the living and sure as hell ain’t doin’ nothing’ for the already dead.

In fairness, there was one good point, the eulogy provided by the minister of the small church where I grew up, a church where my great-grandfather had been a stalwart member, where my dad still attended and where the board of trustees at the time was probably wondering what they were going to do to replace Dad’s rather substantial monetary contributions.  The minister had been a friend of both my sister and me in college and she (what a hoot it was when dad found out he was going to have at one time not only a female minister, but a Black superintendent and a female Bishop.  He must have felt that his soul was totally exposed to whatever forces of evil he might have believed were out there because he surely believed that none of those three second class citizens could do much to help him, being the superior Southern white male that he was.)

Despite that, the minister and Dad had developed a good relationship over time, often joking at coffee on a  Thursday afternoon that having seen her he needn’t show up at services on Sunday to which she would remind him that would be OK if he just gave her his offering plate contribution then and there.  Their relationship was not so unlike the one he had with me. Strong women, particularly if they had any direct intersection with his perceived perfect existence, made him nuts!  I never doubted that he loved me dearly and that he would always be there for me if needed, but we had difficulty sitting in the same room without arguing, sometimes changing sides in the midst of things, just to keep from agreeing I think.

Anyway, at his funeral, the minister gave a wonderful description of my Dad.  It was clear that she truly loved and respected him, as did so many others, and those words she said about him didn’t necessarily give me comfort, but made me proud to have had him in my life and helped me feel the sadness that he was gone.  But that was all.  Nothing about the scripture or the hokey, though beautiful, song about the streets of gold that my nephew sang made me anything but angry.  I looked around and most everyone else seemed to be buying into what was going on - a celebration of my Dad’s ascension into heaven.  All I wanted to do was get out of there as soon as possible.

So, now, we were discussing our own burials and I can’t seem to wrap my head around anything concrete - except that I know for sure that I DO NOT want what is left of my body placed in a concrete vault six feet under ground.  I have not nor do I  plan on committing any crimes  that might require my exhumation for criminal analysis purposes and that is the only reason I can figure for that man-made cave.  Nor do I want to be embalmed.  After that it gets fuzzy. 

David knows that he wants to be cremated and preferably have his ashes scattered on Doune Hill in Scotland.  If that isn’t possible he wants his ashes sailed out into the Gulf Stream somewhere and left to float there until a big storm comes and the boat carrying them sinks.  (Actually he wants a Viking funeral like in that movie with Burt Lancaster and McCauley Culkin where the kids shoot  arrows to ignite a boat carrying the body, the flames turning it to ash as the boat sinks slowly on the horizon -  but neither of our boys is very good at archery so I think the fire will have to come first)

As I work through my own ideas I keep coming back to one very troubling point.  I know that my sister and the rest of my family will want a funeral for my Mom very similar to the one for my Dad - and I want no part of it, no part of it at all.  It is already difficult as we lose Mom bit by bit to dementia but the thought of having her embalmed and laid out for people to stare at and then pretending that she is somewhere out there a whole person again makes me ill.  I do not want to be there but I am not sure I am strong enough to endure the criticism and bad feelings I will create if I am not.  Hopefully, I will have a lot more time to visit her in life before I have to deal with the death thing.

And, I’m thinking maybe I  want to give my body for research at a medical school. Heaven knows (pun intended), that there is enough medically going on with me to make it interesting.  Oh, I know the stories about how badly med students treat cadavers but it is only a shell, the energy that comprised my consciousness will have already merged back into the universe. Oh, and I want people to dance around a bonfire in both a clockwise and a counter-clockwise direction while having one hell of a good party.  Getting naked and painting your bodies vibrant colors is optional.


  1. Mimi Garrity DenmanMay 3, 2010 at 10:58 PM

    I know that if you go before me- I will call up your 400 best friends and we'll bring out our one perfect crystal wine glass, and in person or on Skype- tell stories and celebrate your amazing life and you wonderfulness. Food will also be served (see today's previous email on Wednesday dinners for ideas).

  2. Cynthea Lee RoseMay 11, 2010 at 6:39 PM

    My current desire for my bodily remains post-cremation, is for my ashes to be thrown in a large hole dug in the ground and one of the newly-bred disease-free American Chestnut trees to be planted right on top. What is left of Cynthea Lee Rose will nourish the tree and any critter who consumes the nuts. I'm such a pagan!

  3. Oh yeah, When you visit in June...let's talk about that bonfire!