One of my best friends from childhood has been left with the task of being the chief planner of her mother-in-law's memorial service this weekend. As with most families, there's the one who takes on the bulk of such responsibilities, mostly because nobody else is up to handling the details of securing a church, a minister, music and flowers. But the big thing they really are not up to handling is the cremation or burial of the deceased's body.
Long ago, when we were in the eighth grade, my friend and I formed a pact, which we still honor. Whichever of us survives the death of the first will be responsible for this job. I just learned that she's bequeathed her responsibilities for this pact to her children, should she predecease me. I, unfortunately, have no one to stand in my stead should I go first. Sorry about that, friend. But then that's why you have your children and husband, to take my place if it is necessary.
I'm not trying to be flip about this. I know it may sound like I am. But for my friend and me, death is just a phase of life.
I kind of imagine my friend going through the rituals of death the way they were performed in "Fried Green Tomatoes" -- the closing of the curtains, the stopping of the clock, the covering of the mirrors in the house. Old fashioned rituals, surely filled with superstition. Still, I find a little comfort in those kind of rituals that people used to be more involved in, like having a wake in the parlor. It's just the kind of thing she would know how to do. Certainly more real than the way most people die today, in a bed that doesn't belong to them, in which countless others also will die.
My friend and I understand a lot of the same things about death.
Our losses started young. We lost friends while we were in school. And when we were 21, we both lost our fathers the same summer, about a month apart. And we both were thrown into active duty, having to step up to do the funeral planning so others could grieve and avoid the trauma of coffin shopping and lining up singers. She also was involved in the funerals of grandparents.
Another friend, also as close as a blood sister, lost her mother when she was 15 years old. In my opinion, that's too young to assume funeral duty. Too much to ask of someone of such tender years whose whole life was ripped apart one stupid night.
I have to give her some leeway because of that trauma. It happened when she was young and basically left alone in the world.
The other night, I got an e-mail from her, obviously upset because we had not had the chance to have a conversation while she was in the U.S. briefly. She had some medical issues she had hoped to discuss with a friend "since I have no family (close or otherwise) to talk to."
Well, that stings me some. The fact is, she's married and has two sons. Granted, they are not the people she would or should turn to for some "girl talk," but they definitely do count as family, I would think. I'm not trying to play "one-upsmanship" here, but it was like she's forgotten that I really have no one. No family, no spouse, no children. I just wish her wording had been a bit more thoughtful perhaps.
And I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to talk, too. No matter who's lost how many loved ones, the truth is we've all seen enough losses to know that we need to love and protect the relationships we have.
One of my dear older friends from my previous church home contacted me over the weekend while her daughter and son-in-law were at her home. She wanted to ask me to put together a slide show of her life to be shown at her memorial service, as I had done for her husband. She ran down a list of everything she has planned -- she's paid for the cremation and is writing her obituary and now has me lined up for the slide show.
I know she's done all this planning and preparation to spare her daughter from having to do it from a distance when the time comes, but there's a little part of me that feels like she's depriving her daughter of something. Yes, it's painful to think about, especially when the person is still living, but in some ways I think funeral planning is a rite of passage.
It's not as cool as going to the prom -- but on the other hand it's vastly more meaningful. You don't get a corsage, but you get something better. It's your last opportunity to honor someone you love and cherish. And it's an experience which really pulls out every ounce of compassion inside you.
One other thing I've observed. There are two kinds of people at funeral times: There are rocks, and there are rivers. And we need them both. The rocks are the ones who can encapsulate their emotions long enough to get through the work. They are the ones who handle the details no one else can face. You can see in their faces that they are grief-stricken and heavy laden, but they save their tears for private times, usually late at night, when they have done their work and are bone-tired. Since they don't show their emotions while they're dealing with their responsibility, they are often seen as stoic and hard-hearted.
The Rivers, on the other hand, are the ones who take the lead emotionally, pouring out sorrow not only for themselves, but for the ones who can't do it then. They are the ones who will grab you and cry with you or for you until you're both soaked and snotty faced. You can also count on them to have the jumbo box of Kleenex.
Yes, we really need both kinds of people, and we need to lean on each other whichever kind we are. Depending on circumstances, we may play one role at one time and another at a different time.
I know which of my friends are rocks and which are rivers. When I do my own planning, I'll know who I want to do what, knowing which role they will play. I just want them to know that whichever part they play, it's OK with me, because I love them for who they are. And I know they will do their part well.