MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH
While adult children may be wary of discussing death with their elderly parents, they may be surprised at how open seniors are about discussing their futures. It is often the case that older individuals have less fear of death and approach it more openly than their younger counterparts. Seniors may have this more positive approach toward death because they’re more aware of their own mortality and they think about death more often, discuss it more openly, and accept it more peacefully than other age groups. The elderly do not consider it morbid to discuss their own passing. Instead, they talk about burial and funeral arrangements as a means of squarely facing the close of life and taking charge of events.
QUOTE: “All that live must die, passing through nature to eternity.”
ENDING ON A POSITIVE NOTE
Baby Boomers, in particular, often describe their lives as having been played out against a background of music that speaks of their time and experience. With this in mind, many are deciding to incorporate music that is important to them in their funeral plans. While funerals used to be solely associated with solemn organ music, funeral preplanners may decide that the tunes of James Taylor, Neil Young, or Joni Mitchell may be more appropriate to their experience. This is done with a complete understanding of music’s ability to affect mood and shape the way that people will remember them and their final day together. This is but one of the many ways that people can personalize their funerals.
QUOTE: “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
EXPRESSIONS OF DEEP SORROW
It is vitally important that those suffering the deep sorrow that comes from the loss of a loved one be given ways to express their emotions. This universal need has given rise to mourning rituals such as funerals, visiting hours, and related customs of dress and behavior, which help the bereaved cope with their grief. These practices differ widely between countries and ethnic groups, encompassing everything from celebrations and feasts to periods of wailing. In this country, the observance of mourning customs has declined steadily over the years to the point where many bereaved individuals may feel deprived of due recognition of their grief. Proper funeral preplanning can introduce a process by which sorrow can be fully expressed.
QUOTE: “My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping but I shall go on living.”
A NOTICEABLE SHIFT
Many Americans are far removed from the places where they grew up. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average American moves over eleven times in his or her lifetime. As a result, many people are a long way from their hometowns, the places where they wish their funerals to occur. To help these individuals overcome any limitations imposed by distance between their friends and family members, more people are choosing cremation. This option, which is now embraced by nearly half of all Americans, affords the convenience of immediate disposition of the body, followed by a memorial service at a time when all can attend. A funeral should go according to plan—your plan.
QUOTE: “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.”
PLACING DEATH IN CONTEXT
Funerals are for the living in that they provide family members and friends of the deceased with an avenue of expression and a coping mechanism for their grief and bereavement. The ceremonial ritual may not relieve the pain of grief nor the feelings of loss, emptiness, loneliness, and despair, but it does provide a framework of social support that is life-affirming. Funerals create a structure that shows the bereaved a way of bringing the past relationship with the deceased to a close and beginning a transition to the future. Ideally, it is hoped that funerals provide comfort and strong psychological support to those left behind by sanctifying the life and relationships of the person who has passed on.
Much comfort can be experienced during an appropriately planned funeral service.
QUOTE: “The grave itself is but a covered bridge, leading from light to light, through a brief darkness!”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
THE FINAL WORD
The words inscribed upon headstones and grave markers do more than identify and provide information about the person buried below. An epitaph can also relay a message to the living that will live on in perpetuity. These words carry power, not only because they are literally carved in stone, but because they reflect the deceased’s essence and everlasting intentions. It would, therefore, be worthwhile to take the time to reflect on how you would like to be remembered. Whether the words are in verse or in prose, borrowed or original, they will serve to define your life and being to all who stop to pay their respects. An epitaph starts the conversation that the living have with the dead.
QUOTE: “The best is yet to come.”
A SENSE OF PLACE
Among the many factors that funeral preplanning addresses is the issue of where the deceased’s remains will be buried, entombed, or scattered. In the short interval between the death and burial of a loved one, many family members find themselves rushing to purchase a cemetery plot or grave, often without careful thought or a visit to the site. For this reason alone, it is in the family’s best interest to purchase cemetery plots before they are needed. When doing so, consider the location of the cemetery and what type of monuments or memorials are allowed. Remember that all veterans are entitled to free burial in a national cemetery and a grave marker, as are their spouses and dependent children.
QUOTE: “When a life has been lived completely honestly, completely successfully, or just completely, the correct response to death’s perfect punctuation mark is a smile.”
THE LONELINESS THAT FOLLOWS A LOSS
While grief may be a universal response to the loss of a loved one, women may feel more lonely than men following the loss of a partner. This is one conclusion that researchers reached after they surveyed individuals over the age of 65 who had suffered the loss of a spouse. About 30% of the survey’s female respondents revealed that loneliness was the most difficult thing they faced after losing a partner, compared to 17% of men. Grieving women also found that talking to friends was more helpful than men found it to be, with 53% saying it helped them deal with grief compared to 35% of men. These insights might help women better understand the depth of their grief.
QUOTE: “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
TIME TO DELIVER
Delivering a eulogy at a funeral enables family members to share personal memories of the deceased with the assembled mourners. Taking full advantage of this opportunity gives the grief stricken a chance to inject a degree of unmatched intimacy and authenticity into the proceedings. Eulogizers should try to recollect moments and incidents that amplify the personality of the deceased. No moment is too small. In fact, it is sometimes the seemingly inconsequential moments in life that are best remembered and/or leave the biggest impressions. As with most writing assignments, it is important for eulogizers to distill their thoughts, practice their delivery, and speak from the heart. Their words are sure to be closely followed.
QUOTE: “Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
Shannon L. Alder
BELIEF IN THE SOUL
In ancient times, it was generally believed that the body and soul were inseparable. However, archeologists have uncovered the first written evidence that the people in the region now known as Turkey held to the religious concept of the soul apart from the body. It was in an Iron Age city called Sam’al that archeologists found a three-foot-tall, eight-hundred-pound slab of stone, dating back to about the eighth century B.C., on which was inscribed an image of a deceased man. Although he was probably cremated, the words inscribed on the stone explained how the man’s soul was thought to live on in the slab. This belief in an eternal soul persists to this day.
QUOTE: “Thinking: the talking of the soul with itself.”
ARRANGING FOR YOURSELF
When a loved one passes, parents are often faced with the decision of whether their children should attend the funeral or memorial service. Other than the child’s age, important factors to consider include the circumstances surrounding the death, the child’s temperament, the family’s attitude, and the wishes of the child. Generally speaking, funerals provide children with the same opportunity that they allow grownups—the ability to say goodbye to the deceased. Children also benefit from knowing that their daily routines will not be disrupted, that they can openly discuss their feelings, and that they can cry or feel sad. Including children in the grieving process provides them with the opportunity to become familiar with something that may otherwise be incomprehensible.
QUOTE: “A person has learned much who has learned how to die.”
“Grief work” refers to the process that a mourner undergoes before he or she can come to grips with the death of a loved one. It includes separating from the person who died, readjusting to the world without that person, and forming new relationships. To separate from the person who died, a mourner must find another way to redirect the emotional energy previously given to the loved one. This does not mean the person was not loved or should be forgotten, but that the mourner needs to turn to others for emotional satisfaction. The mourner’s roles, identity, and skills may require adjustment to living in a world without an essential relationship and reinvesting emotional energy once reserved for the deceased.
QUOTE: “Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.”
The motivation to preplan a funeral often comes out of consideration and love for the immediate family members who will survive you. Funeral preplanning spares your survivors the stress of making difficult decisions under pressure while enabling you to choose the specific services you want. When preplanning, put your preferences in writing and give copies to family members and your attorney. Also be sure to keep a copy in a readily accessible place. Avoid putting the only copy of your preferences in a safety deposit box, which precludes making arrangements on a weekend or holiday. Do not designate your preferences in your will, which is often not found or read until after the funeral.
QUOTE: “Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had our day.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
BODIES OF KNOWLEDGE
Some people make provisions to donate their bodies to medical schools after death as a means of training tomorrow’s physicians. Once the institution accepts the donation, it will provide cremation at no cost. The cremated remains are then returned to the family after the research is completed, which can take up to two years. Those wishing to make whole-body donations should check with medical schools in their area to see whether they accept the gifts. In some cases, medical facilities will pick up the body if death occurs in a specific geographic area. If not, the funeral home can make arrangements. The funeral home can also help with an alternative plan if the donation is rejected.
QUOTE: “The grave itself is but a covered bridge, leading from light to light, through a brief darkness!”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
YOUR FINAL RESTING PLACE
When choosing a cemetery, bear in mind that it will not only be your final resting place, but it will also be the locale where family and friends come to visit and remember. With this in mind, it is important to decide whether the place you choose will be close to your home and family or in a place that has sentimental meaning for you. Deciding on the type of burial you want can help narrow down the choices. While many cemeteries offer both traditional and “green,” eco-friendly burials, some may only offer one or the other. If cremation is preferred, it may be best to consider a small mausoleum that can serve future generations as well.
QUOTE: “The cemetery is my sense of comfort, my sanctuary in a world of darkness, the one piece of light that I have in my life.”
A FINAL ARRANGEMENTS DOCUMENT
A will isn’t a good place to express your death and funeral preferences because it is not likely to be read until several weeks after you die, when important decisions have already been made. Without a document that outlines your final decisions, your surviving relatives will be left on their own to make the difficult decisions surrounding your funeral and burial. In that case, grief-stricken family members may well choose the most expensive goods and services out of feelings of obligation. By making your own final arrangements in advance, you can relieve your family of this unnecessary stress and direct them to follow your wishes. A final arrangements document sets forth the necessary details in an accessible and appropriate manner.
QUOTE: “It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not die, but retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
MAKING THE ULTIMATE CONNECTION
Although spirituality may contain some elements of religion, it is generally a broader concept. Religion may set forth a set of standards and beliefs accompanied by religious practices, while spirituality seeks to answer questions about our existence and our relationship to living things. Spirituality is often a primary component of religion, but it can also exist in the absence of religious beliefs. If so, it may be music, art, reading, praying, meditating, or some other impulse that helps the dying get in touch with their spiritual sides. With this in mind, family and friends should talk to the dying about how they can help address their spiritual concerns and ease them through the transition to death.
QUOTE: “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.”
A FRIENDLY WORD
Anyone facing the loss of a loved one is urged to seek emotional support from friends and family. While this recommendation will always be appropriate, it seems that one means of support may be preferable to another, at least according to recent research conducted on the matter. Researchers report that people who confided in their friends after the death of a spouse were less likely to become ill and depressed than those who turned to family members. The analysis went on to point out that those choosing to grieve with friends emerged from the experience just as emotionally and physically healthy as they were when their spouses were alive. Perhaps the words and emotions flow more freely among friends.
QUOTE: “One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
When words fail, flowers can speak volumes about the way we feel and where our sympathies lie. Flowers, which are traditionally displayed during the viewing and the service, are symbolic of the beauty and continuity of life. Friends and family of the bereaved can expand upon these themes by sending flowers to the homes of mourners in a display of care and support. Although the initial outpouring of sympathy is a great comfort to a family who has lost a loved one, many people experiencing such a loss appreciate being thought of in the weeks and months after the funeral. With this in mind, consider sending flowers or a plant with a personal note to the home of the bereaved.
QUOTE: “Flowers grow out of dark moments.”
Not all cultures subscribe to embalming, nor is it necessarily prescribed by law. However, it may be a requirement if a body must travel across state lines or certain distances. Aside from postponing the inevitable decomposition of the body, embalming also restores the body to a more pleasing appearance. This is a distinct advantage for those families who wish to view the body prior to burial. Embalming dates back to at least ancient Egypt, where the body-preservation technique was undertaken to help the dead enter the afterlife. In 1867, the modern age of embalming began when it became necessary to preserve the bodies of Civil War casualties for delivery back to their homes and families.
QUOTE: “All men think that all men are mortal but themselves.”
THAT WHICH REMAINS
Those deciding to be cremated may embrace a romantic notion of having their remains scattered across a favorite location. If so, they may want to give some consideration to their surviving family members, who may prefer to retain some tangible remembrance of those who have passed. For instance, having a container of remains in a place in the home or columbarium enables friends and family to come to a physical place to visit and remember. With this in mind, it is advisable to discuss your plans with your family. A discussion of this type should be honest enough that family members feel comfortable to explore and share their feelings. They may even have suggestions or wishes that you may have not anticipated.
QUOTE: “After your death you will be what you were before your birth.”
DOWN TO THE LAST DETAIL
When it comes to planning a funeral, one might think the whole matter can be distilled down to a few decisions that can be left to surviving family members. In actuality, however, there is more to planning a funeral than deciding between cremation and burial and selecting the type of service. For instance, if cremation is preferred, should the cremains be scattered, buried, stored in an urn, or distributed among loved ones? If burial is the choice, which casket and cemetery are preferred? Other details include plot selection, choosing an officiant for the ceremony, selecting invited guests and pallbearers, and many other important decisions. Funeral pre-planning places these matters in the hands of the person most capable of making them.
QUOTE: “While we’re mourning the loss of our friend, others are rejoicing to meet him behind the veil.”
A GLORIOUS SEND-OFF
A formal “visitation” provides friends and family of the deceased with the opportunity to pay their last respects and help them come to grips with their loss. This custom has roots in the Irish “wake,” which is the well-known tradition of giving the deceased a glorious send-off. While viewings once took place at the home of the deceased, today the funeral home is the preferred location, one or two days before the funeral. This viewing can be less formal than the funeral and provides family and friends with an opportunity to reminisce about the deceased loved one. To personalize the viewing, we encourage playing music and displaying photographs that were meaningful to the deceased.
QUOTE: “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”
ETCHED IN STONE
From the earliest years, tombstone symbolism has reflected the prevailing beliefs of the time. The recurrent theme of the skull and crossbones among the Puritans was based upon their contempt for mortal existence. Over time, with increasing hope of a desirable immortality and faith in the Romantic notion of perfectibility, there came a shift to a portrayal of winged cherubs on gravestones. As grief became the primary emotion, tombstone art shifted toward willow trees, ornate urns, and grieving angels. Now, technology and changing perceptions are giving shape to new notions about the symbols and artwork we see carved in stone. Today, heightened interest in Internet imagery has led many people to display realistic laser-etched portraits on headstones.
QUOTE: “Perhaps they are not stars but rather openings in Heaven where the love of our lost ones shines down to let us know they are happy.”
ACTING ON YOUR OWN BEHALF
Few decisions in life are more important than the ones that must be made concerning death. In the final analysis, the decisions revolving around a funeral and burial are among the most important to be made in life. At some point, you must ask if you want to make the decisions regarding your funeral and burial yourself or have someone else make them. Aside from these considerations is the matter of whether you want to burden your family with the emotional and financial responsibility of attending to your final needs. Much as you prepared for milestones in life such as births, graduations, weddings, and retirement, doesn’t it reasonably follow that you would also prepare for death?
QUOTE: “O Death! Thou comest when I had thee least in mind!”