I would have never thought there was anything funny about planning a funeral until I went with my Aunt Jean to plan hers.
My Aunt Jean has some funny quirks. She is fiercely independent, intensely private, and incredibly tight with her money. She has never had a mammogram, a pap smear, or any type of immunization. She has a sharp tongue and zero tolerance for inefficiency. If she were my mother, I might find her behavior frustrating at times. But she’s not my mom, and I find her quirks endlessly entertaining and amusing.
A Frank – and Funny — Conversation
Making plans for her funeral started when I took her out for lunch a few weeks after her 89th birthday. I was quite surprised when she said, “I’ve got some money from investments that I don’t want to put back in the market. I think I’d like to prepay my funeral expenses.”
Feeling a great deal of relief and gratitude that she was the one to start this conversation, I said, “Great idea!”
Knowing that my Uncle Frank had been cremated and interred at a national cemetery in Florida, I asked, “Jean, do you want to have your body cremated?”
She shrugged and said, “Sure. Why not?”
Then, expecting that she would say she would like to have her ashes interred next to Frank’s, I asked, “What would you like for me to do with the ashes?”
She waved her hand dismissively and said, “I don’t care. Just go dump them somewhere.”
Surprised and indignant, I exclaimed, “I will NOT!”
Again, she shrugged. After a second or two, I said, “Ok, if that is really and truly what you want, I’ll honor your wishes. But don’t you think it would be nice for you and Frank to be together? Alex and I would be happy to take your ashes to Florida.”
“No!” she declared emphatically, “That’s too expensive and way too much trouble.”
Knowing that once she makes a decision, she sticks with it, I knew I would need to finesse a compromise, so I said, “Okay. If you don’t want us to take your ashes to Florida, how would you feel about having Frank’s ashes transferred to the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland? That’s where Alex and I plan to be buried. That way you could be close to us.”
Her eyebrows lifted, indicating that she liked the idea. She asked, “Do you think that’s possible?”
“I don’t know, but we can certainly find out.”
Then she said, “It doesn’t really matter you know. I’ll be dead after all.”
I said, “I understand it won’t matter to you, but it will matter to me and Alex, and it will matter to our kids. I think it’s nice when there’s a marker with a person’s name on it, because it gives family and friends a place to go to remember, reflect, and pay respects to someone they loved.”
She shrugged and said, “If it’s important to you, I guess it’s okay with me.”
Meeting with the Funeral Planner
A few days later, I picked Jean up at her active retirement community and we drove to the local funeral home for our meeting with Angela, a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman who had no clue as to how feisty her new client was going to be.
After completing a rather large stack of forms, each of which required Jean’s signature and initials in numerous places, Angela turned on her iPad and started clicking on multiple bookmarked pages featuring floral arrangements, urns, guest registration booklets, funeral programs and, of course, thank you notes.
Jean gasped when she saw the prices for floral bouquets and said, “That’s just ridiculous. I don’t need flowers.”
To which I said, “I think flowers are nice. If you don’t want to pay for them, why don’t you pick out the types of flowers and colors you like, and then I’ll take care of it.”
Jean said, “Then you’d have to pay for them.”
I smiled and said, “Unless you’re nice enough to die in the summer when our roses are in bloom.”
Eventually, she acquiesced and selected a pretty pink and purple bouquet on the condition that I promised to take the flowers home with me after the funeral. (She wouldn’t want such an expensive bouquet to go to waste.)
Forty-five minutes after we started the process, Jean ran out of patience. She’d answered all the basic questions about birthdate, Social Security number, mother and father’s names, as well as her husband’s name and his date of death. She’d acknowledged that she and Frank did not have children. She’d decided against a viewing of the body and agreed to have the service at the church. She picked “Amazing Grace” for music and told me to figure out the rest — as long I didn’t choose songs that would have people dancing in the aisles.
Clutching her purse, Jean finally announced she was ready for lunch.
When Angela said, “We still have some more documents to complete,” Jean’s brow furrowed.
Next Angela asked, “Jean, did you work outside of the home?”
“Yes. I worked for the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. for 30 years.”
Angela asked, “What department?”
Jean snapped, “Nobody needs to know that.”
Angela patiently stated, “This is for the death certificate. They’ll want to know what department you were in.”
Jean said, “Intelligence.”
“Why do they need to know that?”
“They just do.”
Jean said, “Army and Air Force.”
Angela said, “Fascinating. What did you do?”
Jean shot Angela a withering look, and I decided I’d better intervene. I said, “Angela, you could torture her, and she wouldn’t tell you. Might as well move on.”
Jean interrupted, “How much longer is this going to take?”
Angela said, “Didn’t Elaine tell you this would take about an hour?”
“Just a few more questions then I’ll work up an estimate.”
“I don’t want an estimate! I want to write a check and get out of here!”
“Okay, I’ll hurry as much as I can.” Angela picked up another form and patiently asked, “Jean, do you wear glasses?”
Indignantly Jean said, “No, but I expect I might need them before I expire.”
“Do you wear hearing aids?”
“I do not, but I suppose I could need them, too, before it’s all over.”
“Wow! Amazing! Do you wear dentures?”
“Ditto! I don’t need them yet, either!” Jean took a deep breath and then continued, “Look, I didn’t come with an expiration date and I don’t know what I’m going to need before I check out, so why don’t you just figure it out what has to be taken off or taken out when the time comes?”
At that point, I could no longer hold back my laughter.
Jean shot me a withering look and once again demanded to know how much longer this was going to take.
“We’re almost done,” Angela said reassuringly.
Jean said, “It only took fifteen minutes to plan Frank’s funeral after he died. I don’t know why this is taking so long! If you don’t hurry up, I may die of old age!”
I still cannot believe what happened next.
Angela pulled out a catalogue and said, “Jean, sometimes people like to have a remembrance of someone who has died. How do you feel about jewelry?”
Jean waves her off and says, “I’ve taken care of that in my will.”
Angela then said, “I’m not talking about the jewelry you have now. Sometimes people like to keep the remains of a loved one close to them.”
Jean’s eyes grew wide.
Angela continued. “Sometimes people like to have a small portion of ashes in a separate urn, and sometimes they like to have a small piece of the remains incorporated into a piece of jewelry — like this locket.”
Jean jumped like she’d seen a ghost and hollered, “No!”
Angela said, “Then you don’t want your ashes divided?”
Finally, we got to the last question. Angela asked, “Jean, if there’s any money left from your prepaid funeral expenses, do you want that money to go into your estate, or would you like for it to go to Elaine?”
At first she said, “Back to my estate.” After a short pause, she said, “I changed my mind. Give it to Elaine.”
I clapped my hands in glee and said, “Wonderful! I’ll gather up my brothers, and we’ll go have a drink!”
Jean said, “That’s the best idea you’ve had all day. Let’s go!”
I helped her out to the car and we headed to her favorite restaurant where Jean ordered a sirloin steak and a pint of Black Butte Porter beer.
During lunch, I said, “Now that we’ve got that handled, why don’t we talk about your 90th birthday party.”
Jean took a sip of her beer, thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t care what you do as long as you don’t have coffee, cake, and balloons in the dining room. I hate those parties.”
I said, “What would you think of having it at Willamette Valley Vineyards? The view is beautiful, their food is delicious, and their wine is very, very good.”
For the first time all day, she smiled and said, “Sounds like fun. I think I’ll stick around so I can attend.”
I toasted her beer with my Diet Coke and said, “Good plan! Here’s to your good health and long life!”
Facing Your Own Mortality
Facing your own mortality can be upsetting for a lot of people. I’m not sure if the thought of her own death made Jean cranky that day. She never likes to draw attention to herself, and she hates creating any kind of inconvenience for others, so that could be what set her off. It’s also possible that she was hungry. I will never know for sure.
When the time does come, I will know exactly how she wants things handled. I’m so happy I won’t have to guess about her wishes.
Making plans for incapacity and death isn’t fun, but I believe it’s one of the most generous gifts a person can give his/her family. I’m so glad that Aunt Jean was able to push through whatever discomfort she was experiencing that morning, and I will always be grateful that she was willing to give that gift to me.
Elaine K. Sanchez is a caregiver speaker and co-founder of CaregiverHelp.com, a video-based family caregiver support program. She is the author of the unflinching honest and uproariously funny book, “Letters from Madelyn, Chronicles of a Caregiver”. She writes the caregiver blog, “Caregiver Help Word of the Day,” and she delivers keynotes, workshops and training sessions at conferences across the country that help family and professional caregivers cope with the emotional stress of caring for those who can no longer care for themselves.