Monday, February 18, 2008

A Greener Way to Die

If you don't want to read about death, maybe the title of this entry has already served as a clue that this is an entry best left unread. On the other hand, if all the funerals you've ever attended left you feeling.....well, not merely sad but somehow offended, maybe you'll want to read on.

If your list of life's turn-offs includes funeral flowers, white hearses, canned Muzac hymns, and astroturf over raw red clay beneath a canvas tent in 100 degree heat, you've probably experienced at some point in your life the Southern funeral. Don't get me wrong. Some of my best childhood memories revolve around food brought to my grandparents' home after one of the family died. And of course there are those unforgettable moments in family mythology such as the time at my grandfather's funeral when my aunt and my mother both ran in hysterical laughter, not tears as most people thought, into the funeral home restroom as the circus known as the receiving line offered up its endless array of outright drunks, closet alcoholics, and (the coup de grace) the little old church lady so blind she could not see the dried corpse of a mouse in the black straw mourning hat she wore. Most of us in the South have been to this type of funeral, so many in fact that we're running out of good cemetery plots.

Pair this waste of choice land with a chilling fear that upon our own deaths our loved ones may have to ENDURE this kind of funeral. Just how dignified can death be when it is eviscerated, plasticized, perfumed, embalmed, and coiffed? In the tradition of the women in my family, I had a hard time keeping a straight face when I saw my mother in the casket and noticed the irony of the perfect coral nail polish. My mother died planting a bush by her back door. She was a gardener who daily wanted her hands in dirt and still had when she died in 2002 a gift manicure set, untouched, from 1957, complete with its full bottle of Revlon's 'Love That Red'.

So what would be a better way to handle death?

I think I've seen it, just this past weekend.

A colleague lost her husband after a long and dignified decline at home. As his health deteriorated, he was surrounded by friends, neighbors, caring health care workers, and a devoted wife. She was by his side as he died. He was in his own bed, with his own pillow, in familiar surroundings. He was not in pain.

The hospice workers were kind but totally professional going about the business of death as they whisked away the debris of illness and coordinated the removal of what had been necessary equipment just a few hours earlier. Supplies that could benefit others were recycled. Precious little was thrown away.

Then instead of a big funeral with flowers and a casket and a processional to the gravesite, on Saturday I held my friend's hand as she saw her husband one last time. He wore his favorite T shirt as his head rested upon his favorite pillow, his own clean white cotton sheet draped across the simple box. She could have pushed the button to begin the cremation had she chosen to do so, but by the time the process was under way, she was several hundred yards away, walking the quiet cemetery lane, looking back occasionally at the nondescript brick building no bigger than a garage. She walked for most of those two hours until a light drizzle began.

What more can any of us ask for: a quiet death and time for your loved ones to contemplate it. A simple memorial service can come later when she's had time to think about what she wants.

No pomp and circumstance. Little rhetoric. A time of contemplation and memory for the family.

OK, so maybe it's nice to have some good food brought by the house. Some barbecue, perhaps ham, and definitely a homemade pound cake: regional comfort foods.

Some Southern habits are impossible to break.

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