Monday, May 19, 2008

What Kind of Cake Do You Want At Your Funeral?

© 2008 Leighann Lord

There are those who believe it's okay to bring children to wakes and funerals. Exposing them early to the reality of death is part of the learning process. I didn't have those kind of parents. Not only did I not go as I child, but I basically got a pass well into adulthood; consequently I'm not up on my funeral etiquette.

From what I gather no funeral is complete without an argument over money and method. The amount of money doesn't matter. Since you can't take it with you some folks want a piece of anything that gets left behind. Something about the grieving process inspires some souls to channel their inner vulture.

Pick your side and choose your weapon, the next big battle is cremation and memorial, versus wake and burial. I go with the latter. While I don't relish the idea of maggots noshing on my earthly remains, cremation is a little too creepy for me. Call me vain, but I'm keeping my options open. In case there's a real Night of the Living Dead I want to be a good looking zombie.

On the other hand, I'd rather be cremated than videotaped. I once went to a funeral service that had more cameras than a George Lucas film set. I think they even had a jib. I've enjoyed my share of horror movies but I draw the line at watching the DVD of anyone's funeral. Even with the promise of wacky out takes and a blooper reel I'm gonna have to pass. Okay, I'll compromise with Weekend at Bernie's but that's it.

When the mother of a childhood friend passed away, my Mom and I went to the funeral service. We got to the church so early that I ended up helping the ladies set up refreshments in the vestibule. It was a pretty nice spread: pound cake, muffins, mini bagels, coffee, orange juice. Say what you want about Catholics, but we don't mourn on an empty stomach.

When I finished slicing the Entenmann's I sat with my Mom who was gazing sadly at the shrouded coffin. She said, "I guess that's where they'll put me." And I said, "But first there'll be cake. What kind do you want?" We both laughed, happy for the momentary diversion, but I was serious. The list of arrangements had just gotten longer: insurance, next of kin and cake. In case you're wondering, I like sweet potato pie. I'd consider it a personal favor if you'd slip a piece into the coffin for me just in case they Egyptians had it right.

One of my maternal uncles passed away earlier this month. No major money squabbles, no video, no cake; just a simple viewing and memorial service. People from his neighborhood and his job came to pay their respects. In between handshakes, hugs and whispered words of condolence I heard stories about his kindness, charisma and extraordinary service at work. It made me wish I'd known the person they were talking about. One tearful woman embraced me and said, "I'll miss him more than you will." She's probably right.

For some reason, in the last few years my Uncle cut himself off from the family. He stopped returning phone calls and coming to family functions. It's like he just disappeared. I don't know why, but I'm sure he had his reasons.

To make matters worse, the last thing I clearly remember my Uncle saying to me wasn't very nice. He put in a rare appearance at a Christmas dinner several years ago. As he was leaving he kissed me on my cheek, thanked me for the lovely time and then said, "You've put on some weight."

Excuse me? Did he just sit in my house, eat my food, and then call me fat to my face? I'm not fat. Nor have I ever been fat. (My Mother will tell you that I was a very healthy eight pound baby, and a sausage-legged toddler, but that doesn't count.) In a size-obsessed world, just the insinuation of fat is enough to make a normally reasonable person paranoid. "Oh my god. Am I really putting on weight and no one told me? Why didn't anybody tell me?"

In retrospect my Uncle probably meant it in a good way. After my toddler days I was an underweight kid and an extremely picky eater. My paternal aunts often lamented that I was so skinny, I could run through rain drops. "A good hard wind will blow she down." But I didn't think of that. All I thought was, "He called me fat." Technically I should be grateful. My anger and subsequent paranoia helped lead me back to the practice of martial arts. I'm in the best shape of my life. The fat, real or imagined, doesn't live here anymore.

What upsets me more than my Uncle's death are the circumstances that surround it. He died alone, in his apartment. He was found when people in the neighborhood realized that they hadn't seen him for a week. In the top ways people don't want to die, alone ranks right up there with painfully and slowly.

Even if you're not religious, death inevitably conjures thoughts of God and the hereafter. Reincarnation has an allure. It's nice to think I'll get a second bite at the apple. I'd like to come back as a dog. The ones in my house live the life of reincarnated royalty.

On the other hand who doesn't want to go to heaven? Quiet as it's kept, even Satan wants back in. But there's a lot of truth in jest and I worry that an old joke I heard once is true. Do you know why comics don't go to heaven? Because they never see the light.


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