Tragedy struck my home community this last weekend. A family lost two women through domestic violence. Now this family faces the impossible task of not only facing these public and tragic deaths, but also managing to set up memorials and burials as well. This article is not about how women must find ways to be safe in their own homes and communities. It is also not about the fact that when one of us is murdered, the police first look to those who are supposed to love and protect us most in the world. This article also will not address the fact that just because we are born female, we are already more at risk of facing such a violent death. Today we will look at the family in the aftermath of such an event. In cases of extreme stress due to such a violent ending, one need not imagine how hard walking through the process must be for the family. The family must muddle through. Adults, who themselves are dealing with this tragedy, must step forward and support the children. Everything changed for them in a moment, and now the community has a look inside this most difficult time. For a while the community will be hyper focused on the story. For a while the community will eat up every last bit of information. In time, however, the news accounts will fade. People will go back to what they were doing before the story broke. For most of the community, life will not have changed, but the family and friends of those lost will continue to grieve. They must try to sort out what happened and make sense of such a senseless act. Take a moment and think of what kinds of hardships families like this face. When a story of domestic violence breaks, take a moment and think of how much harder their lives have just become. Sudden and violent deaths can occur. Not one of us is immune to this. Try and not let stories like this become a spectator sport. Try to remember real people have died and real lives are forever changed.
Once you sit down with a funeral director and he or she hands you the general price list you might see a long list of goods and services. The funeral home will often list the basic fee as the first item on their general price list. What is this Basic Fee on funeral home general price lists? Why do funeral homes have a basic fee? How do these work? A basic fee in a funeral home covers many things, but mostly it covers the cost of running a business which most businesses already include in the prices of their goods and services. For example, when you go to get a haircut, you do not pay a basic fee plus the price of the haircut. The price listed is the cost of the haircut and the cost of the salon or barber to run the business. You can tip, but you know the price is the price. In the funeral home, this is not so. You pay a basic fee, and then you pay for goods and services.
According the Funeral Rule, the funeral home’s basic fee cannot be declined. We have a right to purchase whatever goods and services we choose, but this fee we may not decline. The funeral homes wanted a way to secure their interests in dealing with families in grief, and so this basic fee was allowed by the funeral rule to protect the funeral homes’ interest. The basic fee is the least you can expect to pay at the funeral home you choose. Basic fees often cover filling out forms and coordinating with cemeteries, etc. This fee can range wildly. One funeral home might charge $3000, while another might charge $900. You must shop around to find one that suits your needs and pocket book. You can order any shroud or coffin you choose, so picking a funeral home should be about how you see they do business. You might consider what services they might offer and if they fit what your family needs, but shop around to see what the local market offers your family. You might be surprised at the wide range of prices.
Recently I heard a new story from a friend of mine. Her mother had died in Indiana and her body cremated. The family wanted to have a memorial at a place of their own choosing, which is completely within their rights. The funeral home told them that in order for them to have the memorial other than the funeral home, the family would have to pay $700 for the funeral home to transport the urn to the other locale. What kind of vehicle were they hoping to use to take an urn down the street? I do not know, but it would have to some special kind of vehicle to charge such and an exorbitant amount to take a small cargo such a short distance. Maybe the interior was covered in diamonds, I do not know.
The hubris of this action astounds me. This funeral director banked on the fact that their clients did not know funeral laws. That said, the state of Indiana has some odd laws. Indiana law requires the funeral home to take possession of the cremains and the whereabouts of them must be recorded. Cremains are considered final disposition, and a person with legal control can take custody of the cremains, even in Indiana. Indiana may require recording of the placement of the cremains, people still have urns on their mantles or in their gardens. The state might have tricky laws, but the family still has rights. The FCC Funeral Rules still clearly states that we as consumers do not have to pay for any goods and services we do not wish to pay for (except the Basic Fee). Transporting an urn for $700 is something a family can refuse. The family can transport an urn themselves to the place they have decided to have the memorial. This family and many others did not want know their rights and did not want to pay the funeral home the money to drive down the street, so the memorial took place at the funeral home.
Things like this happen – not every time a family sits down with an industry professional- but it happens nonetheless. I find this blatant disregard for human dignity and obvious greed driven behavior at the expense of a family in grief revolting. Many out there do not know where to turn for help when they do not feel comfortable with what an industry professional tells them. To be perfectly honest, how can a person in a state of grief be required to sort through this? This is not the way an industry that deals with a vulnerable population should act ever. The industry should expect to have the government looking over their shoulders making sure they adhere to the law and not lining their pockets with easy money.
What can we do? Continue to act as a light for those around you. People tell me stories because they know I will tell them the truth. They tell me stories because they know I will listen to them. Be open to talking about death to your friends and family. This might be the singular most important act any of us can do to help others. Death is still a taboo topic. Know your rights by doing your research. If you find yourself at a meeting with an industry professional, and what they tell you does not add up, contact the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Their phone number is 800-865-8300. When I need to know a fine point of law, I always contact them. They are always open to help people and have done so for years. The industry does not like them, and that means the Funeral Consumers Alliance knows what they are doing. Do not feel shy about contacting them if you do not know the answer. This is what they do, and they do it well.
Even when we think we have become more comfortable with the idea of our own death, we might find that we harbor odd ideas about death. I have come to realize that we often have a specific idea and sometimes interesting ideas about our final wishes. Some of us might think that cremains are light and airy and that somehow cremains can just blow away in the wind. Some people do not want their bodies to go back to the earth and are afraid of nature coming in contact their bodies. Some people really want to make sure that when they die, they are in fact dead. Still others think that maybe embalming might hurt. For me, I do not ever want to be put in a mausoleum because I do not know how I would get out.
I think having a good look at what romantic or fear based ideas we might entertain about death allows us an opportunity up to take a deeper look at the reality of death. Looking into our own misgivings about death might just open our eyes to the fact that we might not really embrace our own mortality. Perhaps having misgivings about death does not necessarily mean we are totally afraid of death. Maybe we just have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that at some point our bodies really will be dead. Our bodies one day will cease to function. We spend an awful lot of time everyday living with our bodies. We have lived through so much with them and through them. Coming to terms with the fact that one day we will have to leave these bodies just might give us misgivings. That might not be such a bad thing. Maybe this tells us that we are not infatuated with death. It might just tell us that we are not really ready to have a good look at our own death. Whatever the reason, having a look at these illogical ideas we have about death might just lend itself to a deeper exploration of our own psyche. This process might lead us to becoming more accepting of ourselves and others who are trying to take ownership of their lives and death.
Today, I look at the state of the death care industry. Today, I look at what the industry permits and what it discourages, and I am saddened by it all. Today, I look at the techniques the industry uses to put families “at ease” or rather off balance so that they do not realize the industry works hard to obfuscate what they do. I hate the use of language the industry uses so that families do not know notice what the industry presents as “proper” and “traditional”. The industry shuffles the body away so that it can prepare the body for cremation or embalming. These processes do not necessarily care for the body of our loved ones. One process destroys the body and the other process poisons the body. In both cases, the byproducts of the process enter back into our ecosystem in unexpected ways – one goes up in smoke into the atmosphere while blood goes down the drain into the sewer system. I imagine if the industry made known what really happens in cremation and embalming, many people would reject them outright.
One must admit that having two options at death cannot meet the needs of our society filled with such a variety of cultural perspectives. What about traditions that also do not fit into the death care industry’s romantic ideas of dealing with a body following death? Either the industry wants us to imagine we are Egyptian kings and queens or we have become ash and spirit.
First I object to so many things that the industry does to families. First I object that funeral directors have insinuated themselves as the authority into one of the most tender and difficult times in a family. I object to the language used by the industry that obfuscates the truth. I object to the fact that in ten states, citizens are required to hire them, even if they do not wish to. I object to the fact that people cannot easily get a traditional funeral where no embalming or cremation takes place. I object that if they have to hire a funeral director at the time of death that it costs so much? How can simply cleaning and dressing a body following death be so difficult to obtain? Our ancestors did it all the time. We used to care for our own dead. We used to have community supports for families in grief. Some traditions still easily care for their dead. I know in some spiritual communities, people are beginning to return to care of the dead as a ministry. That is all good. The state of the industry can change only when we change. For so long the death care industry worked in the dark, changing our perceptions ever so slightly until we would not ask if the services of a funeral home no longer serve the community’s interest. Change can only happen when we decide to take a good look at the truth and have the desire to change.
We need to get comfortable with the idea of death. I do not mean to glorify death, or think death is cool. No. What I mean is that we need to get our heads around the fact that we die. We die. Those we love die. Those we do not love die. We need to know that things are never the same anyway twice. We might celebrate a particular holiday every year, but every year it looks different because we are all different from the year before. Nothing in our life is static. We are in a constant state of flux, so when I say we must get comfortable with death, I mean we must get comfortable with life. Few of us enjoy the fact that things change all the time. Most of us seek stability in any way we can. Of course we do because living in complete chaos is no fun. We need to form a lens through which we can view the ever changing nature of life, and still feel comfortable enough to move forward through our lives. Accepting the ever changing nature of life can lead us to a deeper understanding. We can then see that every day gives us the opportunities to change because each day we are slightly different people. With each new experience – difficult or delightful - we can then add more depth to our lives and become more and more a treasure for those around us. If nothing is ever the same that means we have endless opportunities of change and beauty. Of course the opposite is quite possible. We can run into more and more unpleasant and difficult experiences in our lives. Perspective makes all the difference in how we view our lives. Let us become more comfortable with our lives. Let us take a step back and begin to understand how life works. We need to get comfortable with the ever changing nature of life so that we can begin to take seriously the fact that we will die. When that day comes we do indeed want things in order for our loved ones. Make and share that plan today.
I’m fascinated with how we humans handle death. From a young age, I have thought that what makes humans human is the fact that we have a wide variety of rituals and practices surrounding death. I used to be surprised that death became my topic, but upon years of reflection, I no longer am. This coming month, I will be focusing my energies to putting my writing together to create my little book on life and death. I hope this will be something that will be cohesive, informative as well as amusing. Thank you for all your support. Let’s see what I come up with.
On perhaps one of the worst days of our lives, my husband and I sat side by side at his father’s funeral listening to the priest give the eulogy. The previous day, my mother-in-law and her sister-in-law had sat together writing the eulogy. Mama had decided that the story of Tata defecting and landing in prison only to defect successfully once released was not to be included. It was somehow disgraceful to mention he was imprisoned for his beliefs. No mention of how a boy too poor to attend school ended up learning five languages. We did not hear that his one dream of having a family living in freedom was realized through amazing feats of self-sacrifice and determination. What we heard was a tribute to my husband, who was horrified. Afterwards, he told me that under no circumstance was there to be a eulogy at his funeral since he already had one. I have no idea what my father-in-law would have wanted to have included in his tribute, but I hope he would have wanted one that highlighted his time on Earth or one that demonstrated how much we loved him and appreciated his hard work and love towards us all. He was a wonderful man and I miss him dearly.
With the advent of social media today, we are inundated all the time with media. Because of this we are more likely than not to have a multimedia tribute included at a wake or funeral. For those of us who were born and had a whole life before social media, so much of our life is left undocumented. For most of us who fall under this heading we don’t mind too much. On the other hand what this means for our family and friends is that when we die, they might be left wondering what to include in our story. When you make your plan for your funeral and burial, include biographical information. It does not have to be every little thing that you have done, but perhaps it could include things that you are most proud of, interesting information about your achievements or ideas you have held dear to your heart. Some people might write out their eulogy, but not everyone feels comfortable with that process. You need only create a document that is easy to read; it does not need to be a narrative in any way. You could also make a data base of old family photographs. Most of us have a hard time saying good things about ourselves, but don’t let that hinder this process. Think rather that you are making a document for the future, a document that might help people frame your life, and a document that might help others remember the fun things of your life. Through this documentation those who love you most will have a starting point to remember you through laughter and love. Remember to save the document in more than one place and in more than one way. Make a hard copy as well as a digital copy. Put it in a place that it will more likely be found. Tell at least two trusted persons where to locate your final wishes. Remember when we plan, we make things easier for those who are left to make the choices for us after we are gone. We cannot control what happens - we can only make it easier for them.
This last week, my family said good-bye to a statue of St. Margaret of Scotland which had resided with us for decades. My father saved it from a convent years ago when I was in High School. I cannot recall the convent’s name although it was probably St. Margaret. She was not always in her full glory as the entire pedestal and canopy was over seven feet tall. Only when my parents moved to Illinois years latter was the whole pedestal and canopy assembled and she stood in the family room. We have a family saying that goes something like this, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over doing”. I think that describes what it was like living with this statue of St. Margaret. My children have grown up with St. Margaret, and she has become part of our stories. Knowing that this beautiful piece belonged where she would be loved in a living community, my sister, Margaret located a lovely thriving church and school which desired to have her. Last weekend, my sister and her husband brought St. Margaret to that community. To say that it was not a loss would be a lie. I have loved sharing living space with her and she was quite beautiful. In the end, she needed to be loved by more than just us, and now she will be.
Life is a series of letting go. At birth we must let go of living in our mother’s womb to begin our own lives. We must let go at each stage to embrace the other until we let go of this life all together. Letting go is the very mode of living fully. Sometimes letting go is small like when you know you need to pass something on to someone else. Sometimes we have to let go of habits which no longer serve us. Those can be very difficult to let go of. In a sense these little letting goes are like little deaths. We need to go through the process of letting go and then allowing something new to enter our lives. I am at the point in my life where I need to let go of more and more things. I am not the biggest fan of that process, but I know that my life will be fuller once I let go of unnecessary things. Letting go of things and habits allow new things into our lives and connects us even more to those around us.
I realize we have entered June only when I feel this great lingering sadness. Dad died nine years ago at the end of June. In June I have to face Father’s Day, his birthday (this year on the same day) and the anniversary of his death. It feels like a rat-tat-tat of grief throughout the month. I have lived through a few of these Junes. I know what to expect now, but that has not always been so. A few years back, I tried to ignore the grief and it only came out in odd ways. My back went out and my sleep was terrible. I tried not looking at the grief, but realized I was just making myself sick with grief. One year my friend suggested I have a memorial for him at church. It helped me a lot to have something to focus on and prepare for. This year, when I began to feel that old familiar feeling, I remembered that and called the church to set up the memorial for Dad. The challenge this year is that we have changed parishes and I needed to know how they did things. I set the date for the memorial. I do not feel so uncomfortable because I have taken action to deal with my grief.
I have a tradition to follow that works for me. For me having this tradition means that I do not have to create my own way. I do not pretend that this works for everybody. I know people who enjoy making their own rituals and practices. If you know that an anniversary is coming up and that you find it uncomfortable, discover a way to make it less uncomfortable. You could visit the grave. Not everyone has a grave and even if there is a grave, you might not live nearby the grave. In this case, choose something else. You could hold a gathering with you family or friends to remember your loved one. I know one family that sets the birthday aside and they gather for a meal to share stories. You could also do something special that reminds you of the person. If they loved nature, be in nature. If they were an urban lover, go to their favourite spots. The thing is to take action on an anniversary. That action can be what you feel will work for you – even if it ends up being a peaceful moment standing in your bedroom. Be creative with your love for the person who has died. When someone dies, we do not stop loving the person, we need to figure a way to live without their physical presence. This can take time to figure out. It took years for me to acknowledge that June caused me difficulty and that ignoring my grief was just not the way to go. Be gentle with yourself. Grief is not fun. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what works best for us. Figure what works for you and do this as an act of love for your loved one and an act of love for yourself. Your loved one would probably not want you to be in anymore pain than is necessary.