“Life is uncertain; death is certain.” Buddha said that, not me. Somehow, it sounds a little cooler to state the obvious if you are Buddha (or Yoda for that matter– “Do or do not… there is no try.”) Planning funeral services for the victim of the tragic car accident was wrought with uncertainties proving that even when life regards death, it is still life.
As agreed, I brought the wife and daughter of the deceased to the funeral home to make arrangements. Sara, the woman who put me in touch with this family and shared the same homeland, was able to accompany us. She met me at my house and together we picked up the bereaved.
I am pretty sure the man at the funeral home thinks he works at the county fair instead of a sanctuary of mourning because when we arrived he was awfully enthusiastic. While going to heaven is indeed the ultimate reward, death for the living is hardly a blue-ribbon prize.
His name was Tommy, but names weren’t his thing. Even though I had spoken with him previously in the day, as well as introduced myself when we arrived, he called me Karen. While K and L sit adjacent to the other in the alphabet, Karen is not even close to Lara. At least when he called Sara, Sandra, he had the first word-sounds correct. I never heard him say my name once. It was either “Karen” or “sweetie.” Repeatedly called “sweetie” by the gum-smacking casket peddler, made me badly want to be called Karen.
We sat around a large conference table surrounded by partial casket displays, sample urns and angel-covered memory books. He spouted rudimentary questions about the deceased trying to fill in the blanks on the death certificate. It seemed as if more questions were being asked than there were answers, and I was grateful that Sara was present to translate.
Tommy asked for the deceased’s mother’s maiden name. They don’t have maiden names in their country. He asked for the name of the deceased’s mother. The victim’s wife couldn’t remember the name since his mother had died when he was young. Tommy said he couldn’t remember his ex-wife’s mother’s name either. He gave himself a congratulatory chuckle and we all just stared blankly back at him. I was beginning to feel grateful that the bereaved could not understand him, and this sweetie was wishing she couldn’t either.
Then, Tommy asked the widow her name and she had a different last name from her husband because in their culture they keep their name when they marry. Again, Tommy brings up the ex-wife. Apparently she didn’t take his name either — shocking.
The deceased’s birthday was 6 days after mine. He had just turned 47. This certainly helped justify my angst with aging. What if I only had seven more years to live? While we don’t know the day or hour, it seemed clearer than ever that this man’s came too soon.
We went over pricing details. Tommy was willing to let the family have 30 minutes alone with their loved one without charging for a viewing service. He said the body would be in a cardboard box like the model casket displayed on the wall. Sure enough, it was simply that.
Perhaps moved by compassion, he said he could lay the deceased on a table for them with a sheet covering all but his head. This sounded better to me than a cardboard casket.
Tommy called the medical examiner to get an idea of the condition of the deceased’s face. He had her on speaker phone and because she didn’t have the file in front of her, really could not answer his questions. He made arrangements to pick up the body the following day since it was still in a different county, close to the accident. Tommy called her “sweetie,” too. It seemed like there were a lot of us.
After his phone call, the issue of what to do with the ashes arose. The family wanted their patriarch cremated but did not want the ashes. Tommy explained that they could not keep them at the funeral home, but he graciously offered to take them out on his boat for disposal. This gave me chills. The thought of Tommy and some “sweetie” out on his boat drinking their Pabst Blue Ribbon, shooting the breeze and tossing the ashes without so much as a Hail Mary seemed brazenly disrespectful. I badly wanted to ask for the ashes myself, but that didn’t seem any more appropriate.
He tried to up-sell services by offering a rented oak casket with a brand new liner for the viewing, and more of a service than the 30 minutes (which is really only intended to allow the family to identify the dead). He said he could make it “real nice.” He could make us a deal.
The family said no deal. They would pay Tommy to fix the deceased’s face so it would be viewable, the body would not be embalmed, there would be 30 minutes for family only to pay their respects, and then he would be cremated. Later, the family would have their own Buddhist service at home.
There was the medical examiner’s fee and copies of the death certificates to pay for; it all came to $1,156. I still did not understand how the family would be paying for it as there was some confusion when I was visiting the night before. Sara did not know either. So, I stepped out of the room to call Sonny, their friend who had introduced me to the family and assigned me the task of helping to coordinate the services.
Sonny told me he had given the family the money already and they should have it. I apologized for my blunder and, as usual, he responded with kindness. So I told Sara the family had the money and she spoke to them in their language and suddenly there was $1,500 cash on the table. It was bizarre to see this much money (all in twenties) sprawled in piles across the table. It took us several rounds of counting it out before Sara, Tommy and I agreed that it was the right amount. With the money paid, our work there was done.
Later that night, I got a call from Sonny who was upset. Apparently he was told by some organization to stay away from the family. It was very difficult to understand what he was talking about, but after listening to him and then speaking with Sara I pieced together what seemed like a horrible misunderstanding for someone who was acting out of nothing but kindness.
Someone from an organization had visited the family and learned that they did not want the body cremated. According to this organization, they were cremating their loved one because Sonny told them that is what they had to do. I think since Sonny does not have significant financial means, it was probably true that he told the family cremation was more cost-effective than burial. He told me the family would pay him back if they could, but he would never expect it or begrudge them if they couldn’t. He was taking care of his people, his friends. He didn’t know these well-intended organizations would be helping. After all, it had taken them five days to show up.
Obviously, I can’t speak for either side since I was not involved. I realize much gets lost in translation and cultural differences, and I have no reason to believe that anyone was acting out of anything but the best intentions. Still the whole thing made me very sad – especially for Sonny. His feelings were badly hurt and he was obviously frustrated by the situation. I encouraged him to keep his friendship with the family separate from outside involvement, and to just be happy to have this burden off his plate. He called me again the following evening still upset.
Sara and I agreed it would be best to let this organization handle the arrangements from this point forward. We would be involved in a consolatory way only, although I didn’t have much hope for this because of the significant language barrier. It was strange to walk away and wonder how it would play out, wonder if Sonny would realize that his hurt was likely caused by confusion, not malice, and that his friends needed him desperately during this dark time.
Despite all the wavering regarding cremation, the body was indeed cremated. While I know this to be true, I don’t know if it’s what the family wanted, what the organization wanted or what Sonny wanted. The whole issue of cremation had been shrouded in confusion since the beginning, and truly I can only hope that the family’s wishes were honored—whatever they were.
The bereaved had their own service with three Buddhist monks which hopefully brought them the spiritual comfort needed to restore their shattered souls. It is also my hope that the ambiguity of burial has been put to rest for this family, and they can start to heal.
For Master Yoda said, “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. “