Writing as If There Were No Tomorrow
November 18, 2016 § 10 Comments
By Marcia Krause Bilyk
After officiating at over two hundred-fifty funeral, memorial, and graveside services, I’ve asked the local funeral director to remove my name from his Rolodex. It’s time to let go of one of my favorite pastoral privileges: meeting with families of the deceased and writing eulogies based on the information and memories they’ve shared. I now intend to reflect on and write about my own life experiences.
You can’t conduct end-of-life services without being exquisitely aware of your own mortality. When I was newly married, I regularly updated my husband Ed on how I wished to be buried. I wasn’t concerned about homicide, suicide, or accidental death. As pastor of two small, rural churches, I was noticing how people were laid to rest, and I wanted to make my final wishes clear.
I’d tell him, “Honey, don’t let anyone put anything inside my casket.” I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and it’d taken me years to understand and maintain healthy personal boundaries. I was uncomfortable imagining people filing past my body, tucking items next to me, as I’d witnessed at the funeral home. I’d have a no-fly zone over my casket, if I could. Anything to keep out what I’ve seen land there: a John Deere tractor, Confederate flag, baseball cap, soap opera guide, or fishing rod.
“No fancy casket,” I’d say. “A simple pine will do.” How will my body decay if it’s encased in hardwood, semi-precious metals, or rust resistant stainless steel? What purpose will an embroidered tribute panel or pull-out memento drawer serve? Once I’m buried, I won’t be able to see in the dark.
I haven’t said anything to Ed about airbrushed vault covers, one of the newer innovations of the funeral industry. I worry, though, that in his grief he might be persuaded to consider a full-color collage of our three beloved dogs.
Ed is patient and kind, but the day I told him I didn’t want a gold-foil “Sweetheart” attached to the flowers he sent, I must have pushed it too far. “Honey,” he said, looking me in the eye. “You’re taking all the fun out of it.”
My advice to writers? Engage your imagination in the planning of your funeral. Write what you want your family members to know. Save them, in the throes of their grief, from interfamilial tugs-of-war over cremation vs. burial, funeral vs. memorial, green vs. cemetery plot. You might even consider writing your own obituary, which will put you in touch not only with the blessing of being alive, but also with what’s been most important to you throughout your life. The answers might surprise you.
Marcia Krause Bilyk is a photographer, writer, and ordained minister who lives in rural New Jersey with her husband and three dogs.
Marcia, how I love this! I too have been planning for my death and organizing files that outline my life, as well as a “love letter” to all those who are close to me. The Five Wishes form is filled out and notes of bank accounts and CC cards, as well as a list of people to contact,any open obligations, etc…. Organized to make my departure smooth:)
Great essay–thank you!
Brilliant! Your planning is such a gift to your loved ones. No doubt you, too, have been experiencing the bittersweet awareness of mortality. Thank you for your comment.
great post. thank you.
You’re welcome. Thank you for comment.
Having written Dad’s obit, with the help of Dad’s throughly crafted notes about his life ( some of which I never knew) I fully intend to write my own. Having just one child, I leave her a note each year in a box..just a few paragraphs. My ashes will go in my garden, a bulb on top of me so she can find me there each spring–our property is preserved for 100 years. But I agree, why not take part in our own departure and realize our mortality. It’s a healthy acceptance that life on earth is too be cherished every day we are here. Thanks for this great post, Marcia.
You’re welcome, Ryder. Thank your or your thoughtful response. You can leave behind the GPS coordinates of your interment for future generations.
Makes me think of favorite literary accounts, fiction and nonfiction, of funerals and graveyards. Opening paragraph of William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed is a great one:
“Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death: illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.”
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Today’s re-blog is about a writing task every single person should do…
I’m coming to this years later, but I so enjoyed it. What an unusual perspective. I hope when you withdrew from funerals you continued to write.