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Three deaths; two funerals

This is another of those where I begin without knowing where I’m going. Bear with me.

—–

About 15 years ago, I attended a funeral on a desolate hilltop in Wyoming. I’ve avoided weddings and funerals most of my life. This was only the second funeral I’d ever been to.

The first had been conventional, insincere — and an excruciating ordeal for everyone involved.

The Wyoming funeral was the most sincere thing you could imagine.

I barely knew the man being buried. I’d met him maybe two, three times. When he came on the scene, he already had cancer and probably knew it was soon to kill him. But he simply boiled with life — and with his love of freedom. In the short time he had left, he was an energetic and generous activist with the state Libertarian Party. (The Wyoming LP was pretty wild & hairy as LP’s go; this was not about mere politics.)

To my shame, I don’t even remember his name after all these years. But my heart still feels his funeral.

He had faced his death and planned for it. He had donated the land we mourners stood on with the intent of making it a burial place for modern-day freedom fighters. His grave was at its center.

Appropriately for Wyoming, there were no pretty gates or lawns. Just windblown sagebrush as far as you could see.

There was no church or plasticky funeral home. The graveside service was all. Someone burned a sage bundle. A young relative shot an arrow over the horizon to symbolize the man’s spirit flying away. (The shot was poor and the arrow wobbled only a short distance, which somehow seemed all the more touching.) Everyone had a chance to speak their memories.

But the thing that most stays with me is that this man had made his own coffin. He had labored long, lovingly, and painstakingly over the wooden box that would eventually hold what remained of him.

It was clearly homemade, and not made with professional skill. But it was well-designed and detailed — no plain pine box. I recall its varnish gleaming in the sun. And this — the time and care he spent on his own coffin — struck me as the most poignant thing imaginable. What did he think as he patiently sanded boards and applied those layers and layers of coating? What did he feel?

—–

Really, I barely knew this man. I might have had a couple of conversations with him in public places. But the sight of that coffin and the thought of him working on it collapsed me.

I’m not much of a crier. But I broke down babbling and sobbing. No polite sniffles, but an all-out blubbering that wouldn’t stop.

His real friends and relatives had to have figured I was some interloping drama queen, playing for attention. Here was this complete stranger, runny nosed, purple-eyed, and audibly sobbing at their loved one’s grave. How dare she?

I couldn’t have begun to explain. Part of it was that I was at a point in my life when I knew I had to make changes, and the honesty of the way this man faced the biggest change of all not only moved me, but broke down barriers that needed breaking. I left that funeral a different person than I arrived.

I’ve forgotten his name. I’ll never forget him and his courage and spirit. And I will always be grateful to him. He gave a tremendous gift to everyone he knew.

—–

My friend Jill died last April of pancreatic cancer. I loved Jill with all my heart. She was a good person and a good friend and I expected I’d be writing a memorial for her very shortly. But I haven’t been able to say a word.

I’m too mad at Jill for dying.

Yes, it’s completely unfair. But there it is.

When I tell you that, when I think of Jill, I think of material possessions, you might get the wrong idea of her. Jill loved things and she surrounded herself with them. She had tons of money (when I tell you that she and her partner had a stained-glass dome over their library, you’ll begin to get the picture) and spent it on art and aesthetics. Her home was a wonderland, not just because it had fabulous stuff beautifully arranged, but because she and her partner put their own stamp of intelligence and humor on everything.

Their great room, for instance, was styled after a hunting lodge, but the animal heads on the wall were all stuffed. I don’t mean stuffed as in taxidermy. I mean stuffed as in Bullwinkle Moose.

Jill was bright, funny, devoted to animals, a committed libertarian and a good friend to her friends. She could shoot, too.

Jill knew she was dying, but for a solid year she submitted to every indignity of chemo and radiation, despite the fact that none of it even made a dent in the tumor. In the last three weeks, when she finally accepted the comforts of morphine and hospice workers, she bitterly, bitterly regretted having gone through so much for nothing.

Her friends never heard her regrets in person, though. Because in the last four months of her life, she shut us out. There were a few emails at first, then she withdrew behind the curtain of her disease and refused to see anybody but her partner and the hospice workers.

After that, the only communications came from her partner — a cold man who’d always held himself aloof from all of us (but who loved and cared for Jill with impressive devotion). Her friends were allowed to bring cards, notes, food, and pretty things. We were never, ever allowed to hold her hand or even see her.

In Jill’s position, I might make the same choice to withdraw. I understand not wanting to see anybody when you’re sick, or even when you don’t look your best (and Jill was such a perfectly groomed lady that I used to kid her about being Mrs. Cleaver, doing her housework in high heels and pearls).

But for whatever reason, Jill … just disappeared. Afterward, there was no funeral. No scattering of ashes. No wake. No memorial. No gravestone. No nothing. Not a single friend got a farewell message or a token bequest. Although several of us did meet a few months later for a glass of wine in her honor, there was no other acknowledgement, no ceremony, no conclusion. Jill just … ended.

I always thought funerals were ghastly, unnecessary things. When my day comes, I don’t want one. But Jill’s abrupt, unmarked departure taught me how important ceremony can be.

I’m so angry with her for just leaving like that.

—–

Yesterday, Joel’s battery benefactor Frederick “uncloaked” himself in an email to me. Until he did, I’d known only that the anonymous man facing death with such grace was somebody who read both my blog and Joel’s. He didn’t want anybody to know who he was, and that was that.

Now I know he’s someone I’ve never seen or had much correspondence with, but who has been a kind, wise, good-humored “friend I’ve never met” for as long as I’ve been around the ‘Net.

He’s apparently been that kind of quiet good spirit to many other people in many other ways.

I don’t know what kind of funeral, if any, Frederick plans for himself. It’s a strange subject even to think about. But already I know he’s not just “going away.”

Like the man in his beautiful oak box beneath the Wyoming sagebrush, he’s leaving powerful memories. Not just in the “random acts of kindness” he’s doing now, but in the way he’s facing and embracing life’s end (and I don’t mean just facing death, but the final acts of life).

31 Comments

  1. MJR
    MJR February 13, 2014 1:04 pm

    Simple rules to live by…

    So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.

    Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.

    When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
    – Tecumseh

  2. naturegirl
    naturegirl February 13, 2014 1:20 pm

    I don’t know Jill, but she had the same non-funeral I plan to have. I can explain why I decided it, maybe it might explain her choice(s). It’s simple, say what you say and do what you do when I’m alive not when I’m gone. Because when I’m gone, I really have left.

    Traditional funerals I’ve been to have only been difficult for the ones left behind. I don’t think the one who died got any enjoyment out of it, either. Not to mention how ridiculously expensive they are now a days.

    I’m sorry about Jill, and the sadness you have about that. She sounds like a very proud person. She also probably spared her friends the end of her life for their benefit, for their memories of her to be good ones. Don’t make the mistake of the last thoughts of her being anger, remember all the other better memories instead.

  3. Claire
    Claire February 13, 2014 1:28 pm

    naturegirl — What you’re saying makes complete sense. When you’re gone, you’re gone. I don’t want a funeral or a wake or even an obituary. I want to be cremated and I don’t even care what happens to my ashes. They aren’t me. And you’re right that Jill might have shut friends out at the end for our sake as well as hers. None of her friends will ever know.

    And of course I’ll get over being mad at her. As another friend said, “Don’t be mad a her; be mad at the damned cancer!” But it feels so weird in the aftermath — as if Jill were erased rather than dead. As if she erased herself. Weird.

  4. Claire
    Claire February 13, 2014 1:29 pm

    “Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

    Amen.

  5. LarryA
    LarryA February 13, 2014 1:35 pm

    I’m so angry with her for just leaving like that.

    Yeah. Over the past four years I’ve had three friends basically drop dead. One was eating breakfast in a restaurant, the youngest didn’t wake up from a nap, the other was on a morning walk. Maybe a good way to go, but a bad way to leave. In each case the SO was devastated at not being able to say goodbye.

    The last case was the worst. Massive heart attack with zero history/warning while by himself in a local park. It took several hours before he was identified and his wife notified.

    [rant] Yes, privacy, rights, yadda yadda. But CARRY SOME KIND OF ID. [/rant]

  6. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty February 13, 2014 2:08 pm

    Oh, I have seen this from almost every angle possible. As a hospice nurse, and an ER/CCU nurse before that, I saw every kind of preparation and avoidance of it.

    No funeral or the lack of it can keep you from honoring and loving your friends. No amount of funeral flowers or bereavement visits will replace the call you didn’t make, the missed visit, the broken promise…

    The worst was the evening my husband suffered a heart attack. He had no will or other directives. His family was hostile. We had an argument just before he died… I can’t think of a worse situation, but I remember him with love and joy even now… 28 years later.

  7. Beth
    Beth February 13, 2014 2:28 pm

    Thoughtful, meaningful post and comments.

    Claire, I wonder if perhaps your friend Jill felt as the protagonist Laura did in May Sarton’s novel about dying, *A Reckoning*. Laura is determined to carry out her own dying in her own way, after a lifetime of doing for others and living conventionally. Besides asking friends and family to allow her space and solitude, she refuses as much medical intervention as she can.

    Perhaps that’s one reason why Jill chose the path she did in her final weeks — because she did bitterly regret having gone through the medical gristmill, and she needed some form of autonomy back at the end…

  8. Joel
    Joel February 13, 2014 3:15 pm

    I can understand being mad. Somebody said “weddings are for the bride, and funerals are for the survivors.” If I were a proud person (heaven forbid) I might not want people around to see what I become in my last days. Sometimes it ain’t pretty. But the people who cared for you in life deserve a chance to say goodbye.

    When our mutual friend Torry died you missed a helluva funeral. We did it just like he wanted, planted him right where he wanted, and when we were done making weepy fools of ourselves at the graveside we had a big drunken party and told funny Torry stories – which was also ust what he wanted, but it worked out well for those of us who missed him, too. That’s kinda the way I want people to put me in the ground when I go.

  9. Pat
    Pat February 13, 2014 3:36 pm

    Funerals were never for the dying and dead, but always for the living. I too want to be cremated and tossed to the wind. (Though I do have a preference re ashes: I’d like to be scattered as high up the Wenatchee River as possible, to tumble down through Tumwater Canyon in Washington State. But I know it really doesn’t matter.)

    Claire, I think it’s hurt that causes your anger: hurt that you couldn’t help Jill, and hurt that she wasn’t willing to allow you to help. The pain of loss is especially exquisite because it has no resolution, it can’t be repaired. The living have to heal themselves, no one else can help them do it.

    I’ve been there too, and only time can help you realize that her decision was a part of what she was. Perhaps she didn’t understand fully what her relationship meant to you (or to others).

  10. Water Lily
    Water Lily February 13, 2014 3:44 pm

    It’s sad when dying people shut their friends out. I don’t understand it, but I guess I’d have to accept it.

    Great story about the man in Wyoming. Very cool.

    Hubby and I don’t want traditional funerals. We decided that we just want a party. Invite all of our friends and family, have some food and music, and remember the good stuff. Ashes will go to the wind on some mountain top. The end.

  11. Jim Klein
    Jim Klein February 13, 2014 5:28 pm

    Great comment Pat, especially IMO your guess as to the source of Claire’s anger. Not really apropos, but it took me over half a century to learn—except in a literal physical fight for survival, anger never serves oneself. Not even righteous anger, not ever.

    Anyway, Rand said it coldly but accurately: “Life is for the living.”

  12. Bear
    Bear February 13, 2014 6:05 pm

    Just to be different, I’ll talk about the living:
    “…a cold man who’d always held himself aloof from all of us (but who loved and cared for Jill with impressive devotion).”

    That’s not a “cold” person. Don’t mistake aloofness for a lack of passion, not caring. Quite possibly to the contrary, that may well be a person who tends to be passionate enough that he has to hold back from all but a select few.. or one. Don’t assume that “cold man” couldn’t benefit from someone just saying, “Yeah. I know. Is there anything I can do for you?”

    But since everyone else wants to talk about the departed and dealing with that: Last year I was asked what sort of services or burial I have planned or want. Whether was entitled to a military service. My answer was… “cold”. I’ll be gone. It won’t matter to me. Do what suits y’all. Don’t waste money on fancy stuff that you can better use on the living. I did suggest that an Irish-style wake might be more beneficial to the few folks who’ll miss me than a solemn ceremony in a church I haven’t much bothered with since my teens.

  13. naturegirl
    naturegirl February 13, 2014 7:02 pm

    All great comments here.

    I have to say that I don’t fear death – what I do fear is it not coming suddenly enough. Goes to the whole “not wanting to be a burden thing” probably. I admire those who fight and rally and power thru, I really do. Shows what great spirit humans are capable of.

  14. UnReconstructed
    UnReconstructed February 13, 2014 7:54 pm

    I’ve given a bit of thought to the subject of dying. Having had a pretty close brush with death a few years back gave me serious pause.

    If I have it together enough, I’d like to plan a reasonable funeral-memorial service complete with humor and rememberances. And a gravestone. I already bought my gravesite.

    Not for me (I will be beyond any caring), but for the people who liked me and loved me. Folk need to say goodbye. Folks need to be able to have a conversation with a gravestone sometimes….heaven knows I have found it to be so for me.

    Perhaps I flatter myself that people will care much when I am gone. But I want to give my friends a chance for closure if they want it.

    Hopefully I will go fast, and not linger in pain and misery. I can certainly understand not wanting people around no matter how much they love you, if you are in agony, and filled with IVs and medicines and catheters.

    Just my 0.02

  15. Anon
    Anon February 13, 2014 8:00 pm

    Someone will probably figure out who I am….

    I understand what Jill and her partner did. My wife has terminal cancer. For now she feels fine. How long she has left is unknown, but it is unlikely that she will survive the year. We have not cut off our friends, but we often want to and someday may. Sometimes well meaning people who care about you are the most difficult to have around.

    Long before she had cancer we decide to donate our bodies to a local medical school. We recently updated the contact information and verified the procedure. There will not be a funeral.

  16. Shel
    Shel February 13, 2014 8:05 pm

    I don’t have anything philosophical to add, only a story. In 2004 they buried the remains of seven crewmen of the CSS Hunley, which had been brought to the surface a few years earlier. I’m not a reenactor, so I wasn’t in one of the formal units in the parade, but they did allow others to walk at the end of the parade and gave out black armbands. I find reading about that war often quite painful, which limits my ability to learn more about it (particularly discomforting was the unsuccessful insistence by the governor of Georgia to Jefferson Davis that Forrest and Morgan needed to be sent against Sherman’s supply lines “or we may give remote posterity cause to mourn over the error”).

    I expected the experience to be interesting and educational and even probably quite moving. At it happened, it simply ripped my guts out. I was no longer reading a history book; I was watching the real people being put in the ground. It moves me now.

  17. just waiting
    just waiting February 14, 2014 3:14 am

    My family just went through this. My uncle passed just before Christmas. He was very adamant about not wanting a funeral of any kind, no obituary, no memorial, cremate his body, inter it with his parents, nothing else. He was a college professor, and a very powerful and prominent international lawyer and businessman, who touched the lives of thousands of people, and none were told of his passing.

    We couldn’t just let him pass from this world with no mention, so the family met at the grave for the shortest funeral ever: “Bill, born December 18, 19xx, passed December xx, 2013”. That was it.

    He sounds a lot like your friend Jill. He was in hospital for almost 2 months before we even knew he was sick. He didn’t want to bother anyone or have anyone to see him in his failing state. His assistant was bound to silence and told no one. The 1st time he died and the doctors brought him back, they asked if he had any family. He finally called my mom to let her know. His call was “Sis, I can’t really talk now, but wanted to let you know I’m dying” Click.

    Too broken up to write any more, but thanks for letting me share

  18. Jim Klein
    Jim Klein February 14, 2014 5:23 am

    Epicurus, arguably the philosophical godfather of many readers here (and for sure Claire!), had plenty to say about death. At goodreads.com, I found this quote. Personally I find the last sentence, and especially the last clause, extraordinarily logical…

    “Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death. Therefore the true belief that death is nothing to us makes a mortal life happy, not by adding to it an infinite time, but by taking away the desire for immortality. For there is no reason why the man who is thoroughly assured that there is nothing to fear in death should find anything to fear in life. So, too, he is foolish who says that he fears death, not because it will be painful when it comes, but because the anticipation of it is painful; for that which is no burden when it is present gives pain to no purpose when it is anticipated.”

  19. Stryder
    Stryder February 14, 2014 8:33 am

    Death is individual to us all, way too complex to explain it so I will just say, I’m sorry for your loss.

  20. Jennifer
    Jennifer February 14, 2014 8:42 am

    I want a party. I don’t want people to dress in their dour clothes and sniffle while the stuffy preacher say pretty things. I want my friends to get together, have a few drinks and tell stories. It’s perfectly okay to cry and mourn, but when I want people to laugh. Life is too ridiculous to take so seriously.

  21. Mic
    Mic February 14, 2014 1:11 pm

    Claire, I can understand what you are going through. I have a friend right now that is dying of cancer. His wife is doing her best to take care of him, but he is refusing any visitors. He is a proud and self reliant man so I understand what he is feeling and I can’t blame him, but you are right it makes it hard for his friends who just want to do something, whatever that may be.

    Most of us have decided to support his wife since she is so exhausted from everything so we cook food, send gift cards over, shovel snow from the driveway so they can get to the doctors. I hope I get to see him alive one last time, but I am not confident I will. So I have to contend myself with a goodbye at the funeral, whatever that may be.

  22. Claire
    Claire February 14, 2014 2:58 pm

    Thank you guys for the heartfelt responses — some so painful, some so wise. There’s too much here to answer (and I don’t mean too many messages, but such overwhelming experiences). But this thread is helping me and I suspect a lot of others, too.

  23. Karen
    Karen February 14, 2014 3:01 pm

    I have no sure idea what I’d do if I actually knew I was dying and roughly when. I do know that when I’m not well I become very catlike and want to just crawl under the bed and be left alone to live or die in peace and quiet. I’m kind of hoping I’ll just drop dead one day and won’t have to deal with any of the social etiquette of dying.

    For the most part, my being here is unremarkable and I suspect my passing will be as well. I have no fear of dying as long as I’m not tortured to death by the medical community. We have the cremains of our last three dogs waiting for either DH or me to pass and be all mixed in. I don’t want any kind of funeral or obituary, but I do look forward to the symbolic reunion with the dogs.

  24. LarryA
    LarryA February 15, 2014 1:12 pm

    Most of us have decided to support his wife since she is so exhausted from everything…

    AMEN!

    Whenever you think of the afflicted, pray for the caregivers. Ask howthey are doing. Offer to helpthem.

  25. Claire
    Claire February 15, 2014 1:23 pm

    I think that’s very true about helping the caregivers. Always a great thing to do even when your loved one doesn’t want to see you. (And yeah, I know how difficult friends can be when you’re sick, exhausted, and just want the rest of your life to yourself. It must sometimes feel like hosting guests instead of being comforted.)

    That was one of the hard things about the way Jill’s death was handled. Her partner refused all help except for that given by the hospice workers. He wouldn’t even let Jill’s friends come over to clean house, even when we promised that we wouldn’t try to see her. We weren’t even allowed to go grocery shopping for him. We did bring food and such. But we weren’t allowed to bear any of the responsibility or take on any of the regular tasks.

  26. Chuck Vail
    Chuck Vail February 15, 2014 11:38 pm

    I am slowly dieing from heart desease, might be tomorrow, might be 5 years from now, who knows. I have no fear of dieing. I dont want visitors at the end. No funeral, no obituary, no grave.if i had my preference i would go into the woods, get under a rotten log and let the critters have at the body. People need to respect the way you die as much as the way you live.

  27. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau February 16, 2014 8:56 am

    It’s perfectly understandable that many if not most people want to end it alone, or with a spouse at most. What I don’t understand is being mad at that choice. Do the dying have an obligation to make the survivors feel better?

    My personal preference, when my time comes, is to simply walk into the desert until I can walk no more. My body belongs to this earth even if my mind is independent. Everybody else, wife and son included, can continue on however they wish, without me.

    I remember how much I disliked my father’s funeral; it had so little to do with his life. I don’t think conventional funerals are for the dead or for the survivors either; they are for the funeral establishment. Wrap me in a dirty sheet and throw me in a hole, or toss me overboard. It does no disrespect to my life.

  28. LarryA
    LarryA February 16, 2014 2:14 pm

    What I don’t understand is being mad at that choice.

    Anger is an emotion.

    Rationally I can agree that it’s your choice. I might note that not having your body handy will cause your heirs a ton of grief executing your will. But other than that I can say, “Go ahead and walk into the desert.”

    Emotionally, however, that won’t keep me from being pissed off at not getting to say, “Vaya con Dios.” That’s a reaction, not a response.

  29. Karen
    Karen February 16, 2014 2:37 pm

    Trying to put myself into this scenario, I’m inclined to think that it’s not anger at the person or the choice, it’s anger at finding oneself in a position of being powerless.

  30. Claire
    Claire February 16, 2014 4:47 pm

    Thank you, Karen and LarryA (and from earlier comments, Pat).

    That’s exactly it. We can respect our friends’ choices while still feeling personally hurt, shut out, unwanted, and powerless to help.

  31. Mary Lou
    Mary Lou February 16, 2014 5:38 pm

    Coming late to this as have been without power due to southern ice storms .. but yes, funerals are for the survivors. There is great power and great comfort in ritual. The first funeral you described was beautiful, life affirming, and provided comfort and closure, just as it was supposed to. Why your friend Jill chose to disappear , instead of giving her friends and loved ones a ritual closing, I dont know, it sounds out of character for the person you describe. HOWEVER. There is absolutely nothing to stop YOU from giving your own ‘closing ritual’ for your friend. It can be totally private if you feel it would upset her ‘partner’ to learn of it. I know I put on final passage rituals for all of my animals, some just for me and the surviving animals (who, oddly, seem to perfectly understand what we are doing, paying tribute to our lost ‘pack member’) sometimes friends attend also. Its not the number of people (or animals) present thats important. And, Claire, yes, it will make you feel more at peace with Jill’s passing to honor her in a ritualistic fashion (no no, I dont necessarily mean religious, release baloons, release butterflies, recite poetry, light candles whatever speaks to you, to honor your friend’s passing.)

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