56: Hand-Me-Down Funeral

56: Hand-Me-Down Funeral

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Hand-Me-Down Funeral

We do not remember days; we remember moments.

~Cesare Pavese, The Burning Brand

My last argument with Daddy was the one about his funeral. He didn’t want one. “What’s the point of a funeral?” he wanted to know. “It’s a big waste of money. When the time comes, here’s what you do.”

He pulled out a plain white sheet of paper with instructions. Neatly typed, of course: “Cremation, minimum container, no memorial service.” He’d drawn it up himself.

Tanned, seemingly healthy, he looked like he should be out on the golf course, not at the breakfast table making funeral pronouncements to my mom and me. But he started out quiet that day, more subdued than usual. Facing heart surgery in a month and a detail man, he was going to leave nothing to chance.

“Life,” he said, “is like a stock portfolio. It needs to be well-planned.”

That was his style. Facing his possible end, he was obsessed with the details. Mama was used to his obsessions, but I was impatient.

I took one look at the paper and started right in. “First, you’re not going to die. And even if you were, this is a terrible idea!” I said. “People need a way to say goodbye.”

“Not to the tune of thousands of dollars,” he said.

“But people need closure,” I told him. “A funeral wouldn’t be for you. It would be for the people you leave behind.”

He was unconvinced. In fact, the debate seemed to enliven him.

“You know what else,” he said, voice rising. “All those clothes in there, you ought to get rid of them when I go. Give them to charity or whoever wants them. Don’t be saving stuff when I’m gone.”

Unchallenged on the clothes, he rushed to have his customary last say.

“A funeral,” he said, “should reflect the way you live your life. Remember that. I’m not about to pay top dollar for mine.”

When the conversation resumed, a month later in the hospital on the eve of surgery, he pulled out the paper again. I was grateful this time there was no time to talk.

The hospital TV vendor arrived, and Daddy turned his attention to telling her how he wasn’t interested in paying $6.00 a day. When she disappeared around the corner, he sneaked over to the TV hanging by the vacant bed beside him, to see if they’d forgotten to shut it off.

If the evening news had appeared, it would have been his last little bargain. But the only free ride turned out to be a dull in-house video on low sodium diets.

Sadly, his luck ran no better with the surgery. Complications set in the very first night, and the paper that had been such a lively topic for theoretical debate suddenly took center stage in a real-life drama. With Mama, I now read it over and over as we planned for his funeral, or non-funeral, and struggled to find ways to say goodbye. Without wasting too much money.

Calling hours—no service, no flowers—was the final compromise. There were no speeches, other than the private stories about a birdied hole or the fish that got away, and the flowers that came over the deceased’s objections were quickly dispensed to my mother’s list of “shut-in friends.”

But the unexpected memorial unfolded over the next couple of weeks when Mama, trying to honor his wishes, started inviting some of his golfing buddies to come try on a few of Daddy’s shirts.

“You know he would not want these to go to waste,” she said. “Now you just come see what you’d like before I ship them all off to the church.”

Mama was a quiet and sensitive woman. No sooner had she said it, than she was worried she might be leaving someone out. So she quickly began to figure who else would be interested in his closet cleaning, and issued invitations to the rest, in order of their family relation and their closeness to my dad. First, she approached my sons.

“They’ll never go for this,” I thought. “They’ll think it’s morbid to wear them.” I was wrong.

One morning, I looked up from breakfast to catch the cuff of Daddy’s PJs walking by. My eyes traveled up the full length of the six-foot frame.

“Morning!” said the older one. They fit perfectly. With his back turned, he looked just like Daddy the year he put Grecian Formula over his gray.

Then the younger one padded in wearing Daddy’s huge white athletic shoes.

“I think they’ll bring me luck,” he said, in a surprising show of sentimentality.

The parade went on, with Mama calling cousins and friends to come up to the house and see what they could use. After I flew back home and called to check on her, I heard a nightly report on the diminishing inventory.

Golf shirts, jackets, dress shoes. There was something for everyone. With each bit of clothing that went out the door, there was a “thank you” and a story about Daddy. Golfing buddies told how ecstatic he’d been to shoot his last birdie, and how they’d always counted on him to bring the crackers in case anyone got hungry before the turn.

Invariably, they’d say, “I’ll think of him whenever I wear this.” One added, “When I put on his sweater, I can hear him laugh.”

He was right about the laughter. It was real. It was Daddy’s new way of getting in the last word.

~Pat Snyder

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