Last Sunday at 5pm, as I got in the car to pick up my brother at the train station and head home to PA for my Uncle Bill’s funeral, I noticed something shocking. The front passenger side window was down. The whole way. As it had been since noon on the previous Friday, when I returned from a Target-trek. An entire Hoboken weekend had passed and not one person fucked with my vehicle. Change in the glove compartment, CDs, everything was intact. An affirmation of basic human goodness... or pure luck? Everyone to whom I related the story invoked the latter. Either way, whew.
It was a trio of days full of consideration of human character. My Uncle Bill, the husband of my father’s oldest sister Kate, was a gruff guy. As a kid, I was sometimes a bit frightened of him. But people are complicated. And in the end, all that mattered was that he loved and was loved. Transgressions forgiven, perspective gained, my cousin Ed (one of four kids, all to whom I feel particularly close) poignantly reminding us through tears that we need to accept both the bad and the good in people, including ourselves.
I’m always uncomfortable at funerals, but not for the same reasons as most. What makes me shift in my suit is my atheism. While I respect the right to believe and try not to wear my lack of faith as a badge, I also can’t be a hypocrite and play ball when it comes to things like reciting prayer or singing hymns. So I stand or sit quietly. But it’s more than just abstaining from ritual.
As someone who believes that when we’re gone, we’re gone, I don’t have the comforting notion of a blissful afterlife. I don’t think that my grandparents are looking down on me between watching Star Trek reruns on heavenly cable (or probably satellite). I don’t think that the deceased have “gone to a better place.” I think they’re just gone.
As such, I think the way we deal with the dead is ludicrous. Spending thousands of dollars on a pretty box to hold a lifeless body and then burying it in the ground? Wha? We now have the technology to get rid of a body in ways other than leaving it lying in a field to be feasted upon by carrion and bears. We’ve eliminated most infectious diseases that necessitate sticking the corpse six feet down. As for the notion that a proper burial is the portal to the afterlife, well, see above.
(At least some religions, like Orthodox Judaism and Islam encourage decomposition and refuse to allow for embalming or caskets designed to last longer than styrofoam.)
So the idea of leaving a loved one’s carcass in the cold ground, while certainly bringing harsh closure, doesn’t help; it compounds my grief. But when my parents kick, I’m going to have to deal with it. They’re going into a mausoleum rather than the ground, but it’s still not an idea I love. I’d prefer it if my brother and I could keep the ashes. But I will respect their wishes.
When I die, if there’s anyone around who gives a poop, my plans are simple. Harvest the organs (anyone who isn’t an organ donor should be ashamed), burn the rest, do whatever the hell you want with the ashes. Keep ‘em, spread ‘em in front of the TV (my nature), hell, toss ‘em in the trash. I honestly don’t care. Just don’t waste money or resources on my lifeless ass.
This discussion came up at the luncheon following the funeral, although the tone was a bit more conciliatory. Some of my cousins and I were talking about funerals and I voiced my opinion, in part so if I do kick prematurely, they’ll know what to expect. My cousins’ kids (being my first cousins once removed) didn’t know about organ harvesting, so I explained the concept to them. At which point Cera said, “I want your head!” adding much levity to the situation.
Actually, it’s always the post-interment where I find my solace, but I’m hardly alone. The collective release that comes from bad food shared in a church basement always seems to be when the true bonding happens. Stories are shared, jokes are told, neckties are loosened. After lunch, some of us went back to Aunt Kate’s and toasted Bill with a jug of the truly awful Pink Catawba wine he so enjoyed. We all raised our glasses and Aunt Kate (truly one of the most kick-ass ladies of all time) said, “Here’s to you, Bill! You never shared it when you were alive!” and we all laughed.
It was good to be home.