The New Comer Funeral Home is in a primarily residential area in Rochester, New York. It is a one story, unassuming building and the only indication that its business is death is the word “funeral.”
We arrived at the funeral home on a bleak and rainy Friday afternoon for an appointment at 1pm. No one had died. There was no funeral on the calendar and there were no frantic, tearful phone calls explaining to relatives far away what had happened. Instead, it was a preplanned appointment to talk about a funeral, to talk about death.
Years ago, a friend of mine made the observation that everyone feels free to talk about sex, but when you bring up the subject of death, for some reason, it isn’t proper. Our family has never been one to live up to the cultural standards of any society we have lived in. Most of us have always lived counter culture, so making an appointment to talk about death not only seemed reasonable, but also wise. My mom and dad are 88 and 90 years old, respectively. For their ages, they are healthy and happy. This is largely due to my mom’s bran muffins, and the care she gives to eating healthy. I also believe it’s due to their general attitude toward life and their belief that life is not really life at all if God is absent. An autopsy would never show that as a factor, but I believe it none the less.
But Mom and Dad will die someday. And the someday will come sooner rather than later. As they have talked and planned with each other, they brought their children into the conversation. This appointment was strategically made to include my brother Tom, who they live with, as well as me while I was visiting them.
As we walked through the door, my dad said “Should we set a date?” “Then we could send out ‘save the date’ cards!” I enthusiastically replied. This casual response to a fate that awaits all of us set the tone for the entire visit.
The conversation ranged from the price of coffins to what the funeral home could provide for the family to how to pay for the funeral. We found out that a one paragraph obituary would cost 300 dollars. We all saw the absurdity of that. “I’m a blogger” I said. “I’ll let people know.” We talked about style of coffins. “Do you have a cheap, steel coffin that looks like wood?” asked my father. The answer was yes – but the cheap price didn’t seem quite so cheap to us.
The man we spoke to was down to earth and frank. “No matter what kind of coffin you get, Mother Nature always wins.” A coffin will not prevent decay – earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust – our bodies are our earth clothes, not our eternal garments.
He said they take all kinds of payment – at which I grabbed my brother Tom’s arm and said “Which of the brothers shall we give?” We joked, told stories, and talked seriously. My parents talked about some of the deaths and funerals that they had been a part of in Pakistan, and I told the story about how the first flowers I ever received from my husband were from a colleague whose aunt had died. Turns out, the aunt had been my patient at a hospital 45 minutes away. The difficult conversation was made easier because we made it so.
A movement has begun in the western world called “Let’s have dinner and talk about death.” It is based on a book of the same name. The movement began because this is one of the most important conversations that people in the West never have. We spend so much time and energy on trying to look younger and live longer that we forget the importance of addressing the inevitable. The idea is to engage families in the conversation and provide them with the tools to have a good conversation about end of life care.
I believe that talking about death while we are still alive and well is an unselfish and important conversation. As it says on the web site for “Let’s have dinner and talk about death,” difficult conversations can sometimes be the most liberating.
We left the funeral home in peace with no small amount of laughter. My parents have lived well – and now they plan to die well.
The day will come when we will grieve and cry deep tears over the ones that we love; when the conversation at the funeral home will no longer be theory, but reality. Talking about these things before they happen helps us to know that we can face that day with the certain truth of these words:
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust:
in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again for us. To him be glory for ever. Amen”