Amy Kingdom's Asleep
"Can I show you something in a lovely solid copper, offering superb value to the client seeking
long-lasting protection? Or perhaps you’d be interested in the Colonial Classic beauty—18
gauge lead coated steel, seamless top, lap-jointed welded body construction? You must want
color-matched shades and Nature-Glo—the ultimate in cosmetic embalming, right? And before
you leave, here is the business card for our very own company grave-wear couturiere; she promises
handmade original fashions—styles from the best in life for the last memory—dresses,
men’s suits, negligees, and accessories. Your grandmother was a special woman, wasn’t
she? Doesn’t she deserve the best?"
She’s dead. Or as we "death denying" Americans prefer to say, Grandma has passed
on, passed away, exited, expired, left us, or perhaps gone west. You may now consult
a funeral trade magazine like Mortuary Management (where Harvey Brothers Funeral Home
advertises these fine coffins and services mentioned above) to begin what Jessica
Mitford, author of The American Way of Death Revisited, calls the "funeral transaction." But
before we explore the business end of Grandma’s departure, let’s go back in time.
Back to the last couple of years, when she was living. Or perhaps we should say—to
the last couple of years, when she was in the process of dying.
"I should be gone—long gone," she said. "There's no place for me anymore," she said. "It
is no longer a world meant for me. It's different now." You coughed nervously and fidgeted
in your seats and your faces turned red. Someone mumbled something like, "Oh Grandma, don't
be silly," and you continued on with your conversation. And nobody stopped to think. She will die.
But you were conditioned from early in life to live as though you are immortal. You search
for the key to forever, so sure that it will be found. Maybe it will be a magical fountain
of water, or perhaps it will be a drug, or a cream, or a spray. But it will be something—it must be
something. So you deny death; you don’t give it a place on your list of accepted dinner
conversations. You stick with safe things that don’t threaten your comfort or confidence.
You talk about the weather.
Our whole country talks about the weather.
My family in England laughs at us. We're so touchy, they say. And the rest of their country
agrees. When my mother, who is American, met my father's family in England for the first time,
there were quite a few moments of uncomfortable silence. At dinner, after a few glasses of
sherry, the conversation shifted from wedding plans to death. What do you want to happen when
you die? My grandfather decided he wanted to be cremated and sprinkled over his prized rose
garden. My aunt wanted to be buried with her cookbook just in case she hadn't mastered the
cheese-and-tomato quiche before she died. My grandmother wanted to be stuffed and placed on
the mantle in her bathrobe. My mother cried in the bathroom for two hours.
Fifteen years later, my grandfather did die. And his ashes were spread over his rose
garden—just as he had wished. And after his death?…Of course, his family cried,
and so did those who loved him, or only just knew him. But after that?…They talked about
him. They remembered everything about him—his tool shed, his white mustache, his soft
hands, his gentleness, his tendency to answer "Yes dear" to practically anything while he was
reading the morning paper, his ability to stir a cup of tea for twenty minutes, his huge smile,
his chuckle—every story every person he ever met could remember. And that is how England
grieves. Not by forgetting and denying, but by remembering and appreciating.
When my mother’s grandfather died the same summer, here in Pennsylvania, the process
was drastically different. We knew he was going to die, but we never talked about it—before
or after his death. He was buried in the traditional Jewish manner, the women in the family
sat shiva, everyone cried, and no one spoke. He was an amazing man, renowned for being
willing to "take the shirt off his back for anyone who wanted it." But no one talked about
his black hair, that was still quite black at seventy-five, his mischievous smile, his on-the-spot
stories that he told to every child he could find, his perfect Donald Duck impression, his
terrible driving. We kept silent; it would "hurt too much to remember." We were concerned about
the funeral—the flowers, the coffin, the limousines—and that was it.
We don’t ask for help to deal with our grief. We won’t share. But when the
d-word happens, we need someone to help us with the funeral. Enter: The Harvey Brothers. And
here also lies the necessity of a chapter in Leroy Bowman’s The American Funeral entitled, "The
Bargaining Situation: Family and Undertaker." Bowman says that the most universal force playing
on the family at the time it meets the funeral director is the sense of guilt. In the negotiations
it is seldom, if ever, referred to, and is undoubtedly unrecognized at the time as guilt. It
is the inner drive, however, which responds most compulsively when the undertaker accuses the
clients, by word or implication, of little love for the dead if the funeral falls short of
the most expensive outlay the family can scrape together. Negotiations. Bargaining. Clients.… Business.
And as the National Funeral Service Journal states quite matter-of-factly:
A funeral is not an occasion for a display of cheapness. It is, in fact, an opportunity
for the display of a status symbol which, by bolstering family pride, does much to assuage
grief. A funeral is also an occasion when feelings of guilt and remorse are satisfied to
a large extent by the purchase of a fine funeral. It seems highly probable that the most
satisfactory funeral service for the average family is one in which the cost has necessitated
some degree of sacrifice. This permits the survivors to atone for any real or fancied neglect
of the deceased prior to his death….
We gasp and we shake our heads in outraged disbelief that we are so ruthlessly taken advantage
of. Yet we let it happen. Lord Essex said, "How long are we to be subjected to the tyranny
of custom and undertakers? Truly it is…costly; ruinous to many; hateful, and an abomination
to all; yet submitted to by all, because none have the moral courage to speak against it and
act in defiance of it." But perhaps we need to point our finger disapprovingly at the funeral
industry. We wouldn’t want that finger, like a loaded gun, pointing at ourselves, would
Bowman boldly suggests that guilt felt by a surviving member of the family is sometimes a
sense of shame because he fails to be grief stricken by the death, and therefore feels he is
falling short of the pattern of sorrow expected of him by the community. In The Magic Mountain Thomas
Mann refers to this guilt potential: "What we call mourning for our dead is perhaps not so
much grief at not being able to call them back as it is grief at not being able to want to
do so." Do you shift in your seat?
When we question funeral service providers about their motives, we hear a lot about tradition, and religion,
and history of Western civilization, and all that noble God's-will-and-plan conjecture.
The religiously educated can shake their heads and cluck their tongues disapprovingly, however.
Because, as much as we'd like to, we can't hold Judeo-Christian beliefs or rituals responsible
for the purchase of a $7,000 casket or off-white high heels that must match the silk
suit and the lining of the coffin.
The Roman Catholic Church requires the following, simple instructions to be observed: (1)
That the body be decently laid out; (2) that lights be placed beside the body; (3) that a cross
be laid upon the breast, or the hands laid on the chest in the form of a cross; (4) that the
body be sprinkled with holy water and incense; and (5) that the body be buried in consecrated
grounds. The Jewish religion specifically prohibits display in connection with funerals: no
adornment of the plain wooden coffin, no flowers, no plumes, no velvet palls, no show or display
of wealth. In Israel today, uncoffined burial is the rule, and the deceased is returned to
the earth in a simple shroud. The Church of England's Book of Common Prayer makes no
mention of coffins in connection with funeral services—it simply refers to the corpse
or the "body."
But not us. Not you.
You ignored her at the dinner table, because she was being ridiculous. And now you call The
Harvey Brothers, and they go to work on Grandma. You decide to go with the Colonial Classic;
it has a seamless top after all. You get Nature-Glo, because it’s the best kind of embalming
material there is—and Grandma deserves the best, right? You make sure that her lipstick
matches her nail polish. She didn’t ever really wear scarves when she was alive, but
the couturiere insists that it makes her look sophisticated and elegant—and it’s
only fifteen dollars more.
They do all of this, and you pay for it, to create what funeral directors call the "memory
picture." The burden of the claim is that the "restorative" operation of the undertaker is
of great and lasting value in bereavement and the adjustive process. The truth is, though,
there is no real psychological evidence that this "memory picture" stops the tears any earlier.
But funeral directors scrunch their foreheads with concern and sympathy as they tell you the
benefits of a makeover, and you write the check for the silk dress and the Clinique foundation.
But perhaps a vision of Grandma in pearls and a scarf is better than remembering the grandmother
who begged for your attention at the dinner table. Now she looks peaceful; she looks like she’s
Not dead, just sleeping.
And as she sleeps, we, ourselves, keep bungee jumping, and skydiving, and smoking, and fighting,
and begrudging people we love, or want to love. Because there will always be another tomorrow.
But by ignoring death, we ignore those who are dying. We ignore our grandmothers and great-grandfathers.
And they die alone.
And perhaps that is, and will continue to be, our culture's ritual for dealing with death.
Just as elderly Eskimos in Greenland who can no longer contribute to their society may walk
off alone, never to be seen again. Or like a Native American tribe where dying elders may be
given a departure ceremony at which they are honored, then ritually killed. Or as in England,
where the deceased are constantly remembered, appreciated, and celebrated. Maybe our ritual