No one likes to talk about death. So no one teaches us what to do about death. There are no classes in how to plan a funeral, deal with the remains of your loved one, handle endless paperwork, all while functioning in a haze of disbelief, altered perception of reality and mind numbing weariness.
But death is inevitable in our life. At least one grandparent or parent or sibling or your spouse or even, heaven forbid, a child will die within your lifetime.
If you are lucky, someone else will be responsible for all of the arrangements. If you are unlucky, then it all falls on you.
I fall in the half-lucky, half-unlucky category. While the memorial will be arranged by my husband’s masonic lodge and the reception will be arranged by my wonderful sister-in-law and nieces, the rest I had to handle. Which means dealing with the remains and all of the paperwork.
First off, let me say that I understand that a mortuary is a business and a business needs to make money. But why do so many of them try to make an entire year’s profit off of one customer? After all, it’s not like they are going to run out of customers anytime soon. Mortuaries and tobacco companies all have the same luxury of never running out of a client base, and yet they both are aggressive in obtaining profits. Often times they actually work hand in hand together on the same person.
So for those who have never had to deal with this, and I fervently hope that you never have to, let me give you a detailed account of what I experienced. From talking to others, it appears that what I went through is basically the norm.
First off, you have to call a mortuary to pick up your loved one’s body from the hospital. Some hospitals give you 48 hours to do so. Ours gave me 24 hours. Since I had no idea where a mortuary was, much less the name of one, they handed me a sheet with a long list of mortuaries in the county to call. I pretty much just scrolled down to the ones that were nearest my home and stabbed a pencil randomly, thus picking out one. I have no idea what makes one mortuary better than another. I was astonished to see a four page list of them in San Diego County alone. Business must be booming.
So after I called them and arranged for them to retrieve my husband, they informed me that someone would call me the next day to set up an appointment for me to come into their office.
Upon arriving at the mortuary, I was asked if I had an appointment. I told them yes, gave them my husband’s name and the time I was told to come in. The secretary looked apologetic and told me that there was a mistake, the appointment was never entered into the books and I would have to reschedule.
Now my husband would often call me the ‘most stubborn woman west of the Mississippi’ and for good reason. And all that stubbornness came out right then and there.
“I’m sorry,” the secretary asked in a surprised tone. “Did you say ‘no’?”
“That’s correct. You made the mistake and now you are going to fix it. I am not coming back here again,” I declared. “Do you realize what it took to come here in the first place? And now, because one of your schedulers made a mistake, I have to go through all of that again? No. I will not come back.”
The secretary picked up the phone and after a hurriedly whispered conversation she indicated that if I could wait, they would squeeze me in. As I looked around the enormous and very empty lobby, I deduced that they would not have to squeeze very hard.
Finally, after an hour, I was met by a sad faced, somber speaking “funeral arranger”. He looked at me with mournful eyes, moved slowly as if he felt every death that came through the doors and he seemed eager to see to my comforts, asking repeatedly if I wanted water, tea or coffee. He then escorted me into a room that had urns on bookshelves with price tags on them, samples of mementos that you could order in remembrance of your loved ones and advertisements all over the walls depicting black clad people gathered around a coffin, or a sad woman clutching a wooden box, all of them proclaiming that if you loved your dearly departed you would instantly order their items, some of them 10% off.
The sad faced man sat down at the table with a discreet folder in his hand and instantly a shift in his expression flickered across his face and he became all business.
“What type of service would you like?” he asked.
“We are having a private service at my husband’s lodge,” I replied.
“You could have it here,” he stated. “We are having a sale, 20% off of flower arrangements and catering.”
Wait! A sale?? Did I unwittingly consign my husband’s body to the Walmart of mortuaries?
As I sat their staring dumbly at the now-not-so-sad faced man, he whipped a brochure out and started talking about the color scheme and decorations, then another brochure with various coffins, and another one showing what type of hearse I could rent. I still have no idea where he kept those brochures since he hadn’t even opened the folder yet.
“No wait,” I said, holding up my hand.” I want to have my husband’s remains cremated.”
“Oh that’s fine,” he replied as the coffin brochure swiftly disappeared to be replaced by one for urns. He continued to extoll how wonderful they could create the funeral for me. “A moving tribute and experience for everyone.”
Finally my brain kicked in and I stopped his carefully prepared speech. “I just want to pick out a nice urn and order 10 copies of his death certificate,” I told him. Why I wanted 10 copies I still don’t know. Somewhere I remember hearing someone say you should always get 10 copies. We did the same for my mother and we still have 8 copies in the drawer. But during this time, your mind gets fixated on something and won’t listen to reason, so I wanted 10 copies.
I had already seen the urn I wanted. It was perfect for my husband who often referred to himself as a 6 foot tall, 4 foot wide cowboy. The urn was simply a pair of boots, an empty lariat and an cowboy hat together. As if he had just placed them by the door ready to use the next day.
“That’s the one I want, please.”
He got up and looked at the tag. “Oh this one is only $495. We have much nicer ones over here. Now this one is titanium with a hand burnished sheen to give it a unique look.” He held up the shiny urn as if it were a golden chalice.
I shook my head and after a few more attempts by him to steer me over to the more lucrative urns, he finally gave up and grudgingly took the small card by the urn I wanted and began filling out an order form.
I had also wanted a cross with some of my husband’s ashes in it to wear. A friend of mine had that done for her son and she had told me what a comfort it was to have a part of him with her every day. So I naively told the not-so-sad-but-more-disappointed faced man what I wanted.
Instantly his face lit up and another brochure almost leapt across the table towards me.
He began to flip through the pages, describing everything from jewelry boxes to diamonds made from your loved one’s ashes. As the pages flew by, I saw a small simple cross and pointed it out. “I’ll take that one,” I told him.
“You should order the matching bracelet and earrings,” he said showing me a smiling woman in the brochure who was wearing a plethora of jewelry. A part of me couldn’t help but wonder why they have smiling happy models displaying every item of jewelry you can imagine infused with the ashes of your loved ones. Shouldn’t they be a bit more somber as the whole reason for the jewelry was not a happy event. But this model looked like she had just won the lottery. I’m not certain as I didn’t look too closely, but I could swear she had a nose ring too.
“No, just the cross please,” I said. I was becoming increasingly exhausted by then. Normally I would have had a friend or a family member go with me, but it happened that day everyone had something they could not postpone, even though many tried. So I was running the gauntlet solo.
Seeing that he would not be able to sell me anything else, the now-irritated faced man completed the order forms.
Then he opened the folder and pulled out what appeared to me to be a sheath of papers, all with official letter heads and adorned with legalese. It was the contract for the mortuary and all of the state documents that the great State of California required. I’ve filled out building permits with less documentation.
“If I could have you fill these out please, then we can conclude this appointment,” the now-suddenly-back-to-sad faced man said as he pushed them over to me.
I began to fill them out. Each time I wrote my husband’s name, birth date, social security number and other information requested was like being stabbed in the heart. My hand was actually trembling because I so did not want to fill all of this out. Each stroke of the pen, each signature I signed, made his death more and more real. As if writing it down permanently was making it happen. I felt like if I could avoid even thinking about it then it never would have happened. Like a little kid who covers his eyes, sure that would hide him from the monsters. I still don’t remember half of what I filled out or signed.
And then it happened again. The sad-faced man looked at me mournfully and apologetically. “I’m sorry, but because there was a mix-up with the appointment not all of your husband’s paperwork is ready. You’ll have to come back tomorrow to fill out the rest.”
Once again my stubbornness kicked in and I again, quietly but firmly, said:
He looked at me in the same surprised look as the secretary. Obviously they were not used to the word ‘no’. He repeated that the paperwork needed to be filled out but they wouldn’t receive the forms until the next morning.
I shook my head, “You called me for the appointment and said everything was ready, you screwed up the appointment and now you want to me to come back.” I shook my head again. “No. I will not come back.”
The now-shocked-and-a-little-nervous faced man stood up and excused himself. He grabbed the paperwork and scurried out the door, leaving me to peruse through the brochures. I am still amazed at the thought that people would actually pay $10,000 for a coffin. And that wasn’t even the highest priced one.
Eventually the now-again-sad faced man came back followed by an apologetic faced man who repeated what I had been told, that I would have to come back.
It is amazing how surprised people get when you say that one simple word.
They both implored me, stating that it was out of their hands and I wouldn’t be able to pay them as part of the paperwork was needed to generate the full invoice and would I please cooperate with them. Eventually we compromised and they agreed to email me the forms if I would sign and scan them back right away. I could pay over the phone.
Finally, I was able to drag myself back to my truck and climb in. I was there for four hours and was completely wiped out.
The next day, the papers were emailed to me, I filled them out and sent them back and then called with a credit card to pay for everything.
Glad to have that done and over with, I settled back into trying to figure out how to navigate this reluctant journey I am on.
A couple of days later the phone rang and it was the sad-faced man on the other end. “I just realized that you bought the cross to wear but no chain. I can add that to your order. Now they have a very nice one for $95 dollars that is sterling silver or you can have it in gold for only $125….”
I hung up on him.