Death is big business these days. When my sister died almost 25 years ago, I remember an exchange with the woman at the cemetery. We were standing outside, she in her black and white fur coat, with a short dyed haircut, talking at me in a tone as cold as the weather. I kept staring at her coat in my numb state and thinking of the Disney movie character of whom she reminded me. Her voice was dripping sugary sweetness but without one ounce of compassion, as dollar bill signs seem to dance above her head. Did I dare break out into Cruella De Vil?
Competition has created odd dynamics in the business of death and dying. My recent experience with my father’s death and with planning my own funeral and burial has been disheartening at times. My father pre-paid for his arrangements. I must confess that I was pleased with funeral home itself and their staff. They really tried to work with us, acknowledged our loss, and treated us like valued customers. Once they figured out our family dynamics, they helped us to create a celebration that was affordable and beautiful. I was in contact with the one staff person several times afterwards, tying up loose ends and found her to be accommodating at all times.
My mom and siblings were not as fortunate with their dealings with Cruella — money seemed to take precedence with her and not in our family’s favour. I was so glad that after all my dealings regarding my own planning that I was not there. Mom and I filled out the survey last night from this chain funeral home and sent it back to head office, several provinces away, with very low scores. At the actual burial, I remember no staff coming out to greet us. We simply proceeded with our committal and left.
My personal experience in dealing with another large company for my own arrangements was less than desirable. I could not shake the feeling that I could not trust the person and that I was being pressured into buying in a hurry. At some point, I thought I should shop around, like with any big purchase. A number of events happened and I did not get around to it. I wake up to the CBC news often and there was a story about this chain and the hidden costs that were left to family after “pre-paid” packages. That was the nail in the coffin, I suppose, for me. I started to make a few other appointments.
The person I had seen at this particular funeral home had been more than a little dishonest with me which, sadly, made me see how dying and death are really about big bucks and not about compassion and healing for many companies. I had been told a number of things that when I checked elsewhere were not factual. I was disappointed because the person I was dealing with had been quite patient with me while I explored my final wishes. In retrospect, I am left to wonder if that person had any intention in honoring me on many levels. He really was more interested in selling me a product and making money off me than ensuring I really got what I wanted, it seems.
In reflecting on this, I cannot help but wonder what has happened to these companies who would be one of the first lines after death of comforting and caring for the deceased’s loved ones. Something is very broken with the system now–or at least in larger cities. I attended a funeral about a year ago and was so deeply moved by the community effort of comforting the family and providing for their needs. The wooden burial box with the cremated remains was made by a close family friend and is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The flowers were hand-picked from the field by many hands. The cemetery was across the road from the country church so all of us walked over. Refreshments were simple and dished out by friends, church members and relatives. The refreshing nature of this celebration has stayed with me for a long time. This was not some event where loved ones were removed from the process because of policies and procedures and attempts to make a buck. This was truly a love affair–the beautiful final send-off. Cruella and others like her have forgotten their main purpose. That is heartbreaking.
In my planning, I am trying to honour the desire to be a good steward of the earth and to bless those who love me by letting them participate in ways that are perhaps a bit unusual or unorthodox. In the meantime, I am running into road blocks when I really just want to be buried in the most green way possible and that allows the people in my life to participate in a meaningful way. We have forgotten that death is not a business. Death is somewhere we all end up and so we should be careful about how we handle things. I have heard horrible stories about funeral homes turning away poor family members who they judge not to be able to pay for the cost of the services. Is that really the legacy that these places want to leave?
I hope that as I continue to plan my funeral and burial that I can find people who are compassionate and gentle, people who are not simply in the business to make a buck. After decades of accompanying bereaved people, I cannot tell you how it grieves me that one of their first lines of contact in their sorrow are people who are potentially cold-hearted business folks. I would even say that some prey on those who grieve who in their ignorance and numbness fall for the gloss during their significant loss. No, I do not want a bronze headstone with that coffin, the other one is just fine. Who supersizes a funeral? When did that become the reality?
Most times, I am a pretty optimistic, trusting person but when I see the darker side of life, I despair a bit that humans forget their calling which is to love one another. I hope and pray that as I create my own arrangements that my trust and hope are restored in this particular arena.
What is important to you in your final preparations for death?
Why do you think this business has become the way it has in some centres?
Good and gracious God, I am sure you wish there were more Josephs of Arimathea to tend to your beloved children, people with loving hearts and gentle ways who give generously so that all may rest in peace. Change our hearts, Divine One, until we understand that we should love one another and serve with humility. Amen.