I’m a firm believer that the human brain can only handle so much at a time before it shuts down. When someone dies, their loved ones spend a lot of time answering questions. After a while, you get sick of answering them and start picking random things just so people will leave you alone. The woman in the funeral home was the last straw for me after my son’s death. It wasn’t that she was rude; in fact, she was quite the opposite. It was that there was much too much she needed to know, just as there was too much that I needed to know.
When someone dies, there are no easy answers.
Her name was Cori. She was waiting for us when we walked into the lobby of the funeral home. My mother in law shook her hand, and Cori seemed to somewhat know the situation from a conversation they had had via telephone, beyond my awareness. The four of us walked into a tiny room off of the lobby and she began asking questions.
My son’s entire life fit on a single form; it was the form she would use to draft the obituary. She asked if we would be willing to wait while she typed up the obituary so that we could proofread it before she sent it out. I didn’t answer, but the husband did. I stared out the window at a bird fluttering about in the bush. I wondered briefly what would happen if he suddenly tried to fly inside, if he ran into the window and fell to the ground. And died.
Where do we go when we die?
Did we want our son to be cremated?
No, cremation is forever; cremation happens by fire. I didn’t know if my son had suffered pain in his death, but I did not want him to suffer in his afterlife. I didn’t want my son to burn. Someone was pushing a clipboard towards me. I looked down. It was an acknowledgement that cremation was permanent. I hadn’t agreed to that, I never said he should be burned, I never said…
Cremation is a permanent state of being; an irreversible process.
The husband signed the form. So I signed the form as well. I had no choice.
Irreversible. As in never coming back.
Cori gave me an enormous binder. Flip through it, she told me. See if there was anything I might want to put him in. Like he was a puppy or a kitten. Like he was a deceased pet I would bury in the backyard. The photographs were nice, but I couldn’t tell just by looking at them. I couldn’t decide where his ashes would go best. I couldn’t decide where he should spend the rest of time. I pushed back from the table and wandered into the showroom. There were coffins everywhere. Cori was talking; I left her behind.
In a smaller room at the back of the showroom, there was a room with wall to wall shelving. On the shelves there were different kinds of urns. Cori drifted in, explaining the differences between the urns. The large ones were obviously for adult remains. But the smaller a person was at the time of their death, the less mass they took up. Obviously, babies are quite small, she said. There were special urns for them, but she plucked something else from the shelf and held it out to me.
I didn’t see the difference. The urns for babies were small. This urn was small. But this one was special, she said. Decorated. It was for cases where siblings or other family may want to divide up the remains of their dead so that they could each take a piece home. It was morbid, the idea that people would want to split up their dead. But obviously it happened. It had been done before if there was a market for it.
How did I choose where my son would spend forever? What makes one urn better than another? I spotted one that I thought I might like, if it was possible to like such a thing. It was a tiny bronze one with a red satin case shaped like a heart. The urn rested in a small niche inside, and the heart could be closed around it. Like a jewelry box.
If it was on a shelf, you would never know there was a dead person inside it. You wouldn’t know it contained all that was left of my son.
We went back out to the room and filled out the order forms for the urn and its accompanying red heart case. A second woman appeared with the first draft of the obituary. The husband passed the typewritten page to me. I was the writer, he said, so I should look at it. I gave the paper a once over and passed it back, not seeing anything I felt should be changed. I didn’t really see it at all. I took a sip from my mini water bottle, watching as everyone else in the room finalized the details without my input. Watching as they finalized his death—a permanent, irreversible process.
Grabbing one more chair from the kitchen area, I dragged it down into the basement to finish my row. There were more than enough chairs for everybody, and after verifying they were in perfect little rows across the family room, I grabbed boxes of Kleenex from the closet and shoved one under each row of chairs. Kleenex and tidy rows of seating—it reminded me of church.
I sank deep into the couch cushions. Not having a memorial service would make the entire situation even more sad, but in a way, to me, it was sad either way. I had trouble grasping the point of it all. My son hadn’t really lived to anyone but me, and here we were making all of these people come down for a service for someone who hadn’t really lived at all. I couldn’t fully wrap my brain around that.
The doorbell rang upstairs, and I heard footsteps overhead as someone went to answer it. Two more flower arrangements had arrived; one was from the music department at our church, and one was from the church itself. I could never understand why people sent flowers when someone had died. Flowers are fragile; flowers die quickly. Why would people at a funeral want to be reminded of that?
People drifted in after the flowers, filling up the chairs in groups of two and three. I sat in a chair at the front of the room, next to the husband. There were eighteen people there, including the pastor. The service seemed to drag on forever, but in reality it didn’t last for more than twenty minutes or so. I tried very industriously to not cry, even when the people around me started to lose it. I buried my face in the husband’s shoulder and tried not to listen to the other people crying. I tried not to listen them talk about my son. About his death. About “God’s master plan.”
An irreversible process.
Life is much more manageable when it can be streamlined and stuffed into tiny little boxes…filed away where they never have to be sorted through or looked at again. When my son died, everyone kept telling me how strong I was. In my head, silently, I laughed at them. People kept saying that it was so sad because we were such good people. Because I was such a good person. But what made us different from anybody else? What made us more or less deserving? Absolutely nothing. I think people say those things because they lack anything else to say.
He came, and he was beautiful. The most beautiful baby I had ever seen, though I suppose everybody says that about their child. He was mine, and he was gone. He was dead.
An irreversible process.