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.