The certainty of death provides us with an endless supply of trepidation, until we eventually get over that and die.
My father died a few years ago. It was unexpected. He collapsed in his bedroom onto the floor, presumably after a nap. He was 66 years old, and I had only spoken to him a three times in 20 years. We physically saw each other just twice. When he died I was not sure if my occasional bouts of sadness were about him or merely the manifestation of an instinct. A sense of duty to be a "good son."
Many of us have distant relationships with our parents or our children. After two decades of estrangement my lack of genuine sadness came quite naturally. Resentment, followed closely by a galloping stride towards acceptance, washed my grief away. I know how that sounds. It is stoic. Sociopathic, even. Still, the grieving process was conveniently brief, even if it was sometimes accompanied by a nagging lack of closure.
But honestly, the need for closure regarding our devolved connection formed while my father was still alive. This is what happens when you never talk to one another; you become a hardened-yet-vulnerable person who struggles to understand what it means to be a "loved" one, knowing the first requirement must be regular communication. Without that you have nothing. My father and I had nothing.
When they asked us when we would be holding his funeral, we really had nothing to say.
So when my two sisters and I began to piece together my father's affairs, it became clear we were justified in feeling like we had been sandbagged. He had no will, no real assets, accumulated an average amount of debt and was living with the same dreadful woman he was with back in the mid '90s. He simply did not ever think of his children, whether it was a piece of family jewellery, photographs, a phone call or even a quick email. My sisters and I sometimes wonder if he had an undiagnosed case of Asperger's Syndrome as he was prone to reclusiveness, was a computer programmer and had trouble talking to people he did not know. He wouldn't order a pizza if someone else was in the house. One of us would have to make the call... and answer the door when it arrived.
But we are not psychologists, and he was not really a father anymore. He was now dead. And all of a sudden the unwanted responsibility of making arrangements was thrown upon us. We now had to be good kids. We called his brothers and sister, relatives we had not spoken with since our grandmother died, to give them the bad news. These people were also estranged from us. All of them were individuals who seemed completely void of emotion, armed with a defeated idea of what "family" is supposed to be. So when they asked us when we would be holding his funeral, we really had nothing to say.
So we went to the nearest funeral home and inquired about our options.
The three of us are not "churchy" people. One sister is a fairly staunch atheist, as am I. My father was not a believer, either. We sat in the funeral director's office, his desk one of those soothing mahogany ones, complete with decal carvings of little crucifixes, flanked by pamphlets for religious counselling services featuring a photo of the same funeral director wearing a powder blue suit and a terribly unsettling smile.
The funeral director started listing services his business provided. The list was stacked with service fees, coffin extravagances like satin linings and a stained oak finish, plus countless other add-ons we could buy to commemorate the dead man we hardly knew anymore. Cremation services are built within the overall package, but if you press you find out that just for the simple act of burning a dead body it still costs $3,000 on average, including the urn.
Was it contempt for my father that was feeding my contempt towards this funeral director? Was he gouging me or was I just being cheap? We could have blown $10,000 to $30,000 giving Dad a proper funeral. But we all have kids of our own, endless expenses, a lack of generational wealth of any kind, yet we were faced with the choice to spend a serious amount of money on a sendoff for the estranged. Instead, we paid the exorbitant fee to cremate him only, and then walked out of the funeral director's office.
We never did hold a proper funeral for our father.
To paraphrase an old joke told at least once by everybody's least favourite uncle: the funeral home is on the verge of truly becoming a dying business. Most of us are from "broken" homes, so participating in the one custom that should require a sense of familial closeness feels oddly hypocritical. More importantly, if you want to say good-bye to a loved one, whether it was someone you saw every day or someone you saw twice in 20 years, it shouldn't have to cost you your savings, should it?
One afternoon of wearing a dark suit and making sure our etiquette status was secure was not worth the expense.
I've wrestled with the argument people sometimes make that everyone deserves a proper sendoff. I don't want to leave the impression that I hated my father. I wasn't even indifferent towards him. But he ghosted his kids, and paying all that money for one afternoon of wearing a dark suit and making sure our etiquette status was secure was not worth the expense. Death is final enough without having to designate the most archaic of all our societal customs as a compulsory responsibility.
Funerals are steeped in an historical religious tradition; they are a somber, fundamentalist-inspired theatre of gloom with an almost masochistic demand for sadness. It also feels like a predatory market, with funeral directors preying on the new, profoundly sad clients who lack the fortitude to haggle on price. Whenever a relative dies, a sucker is born, I now believe.
As more people self-identify as either open or closeted non-believers (we have been choosing humanists and other secularists over traditional ministers or priests to conduct our wedding ceremonies for years), and as the population becomes more comfortable with being labeled as secularists, the tradition of the religious funeral will hopefully begin to fade, replaced with celebrations of life and less macabre gatherings.
My sisters and did end up taking a day trip to a place we visited with my father a few times, back when we were all still in grade school. We walked the shore and stayed pretty quiet, said our goodbyes in our own personal way, had lunch, hugged, and went home. That was our funeral. That was our sendoff.
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When I die, if this article still exists somewhere in the digital realm, I hereby ask my family to stick me in an urn and throw a party. Do not spend thousands of dollars on a ceremony of quiet sniffling and sadness. Any trepidation you might have should be quelled by one unavoidable certainty: one day you will be dead, too, and I bet you wouldn't want your kids to shell out thousands on your behalf.
So perhaps, finally, a dying business will eventually become a dead one.
Amen to that.
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