Faith Gong: How to be an undertaker

Our family said goodbye to two remarkable women this past December: My grandmother and my aunt died within two weeks of each other.

Although the proximity of these events, along with their timing — just before Christmas — felt particularly unfair, it was, perhaps, statistically unsurprising. It turns out that the death rate spikes during the winter months, likely due to the prevalence of seasonal illness and the increased stress that colder weather places on the immune system. 

My grandmother, at 104 years old, enjoyed a sharp mind and relatively good health right up until the end, and had been able to remain in her home thanks to the diligent care of her nearby children. My aunt, at 78 years old, had fought for three years with health issues related to a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, buoyed by the love and support of family, friends, and neighbors. Both women figure prominently in some of my happiest childhood memories. They were warm, loving, incredibly funny, and they showed up: both were still sending my children birthday cards right up until they died. They were also tough: Both were single mothers for a time. In raising a combined seven children to adulthood, my grandmother and my aunt each endured more than their fair share of tragedy. 

How do you write about two entire lives? Perhaps the best I can do is to tell you that when her daughter-in-law told her that her beloved Boston Celtics had played well in a recent game, my grandmother — literally on her deathbed and barely conscious — mustered enough strength to gasp out, “Wow….Wow.” And my aunt insisted that the upbeat Beatles song, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” be played as the processional at her funeral. 

The circumstances surrounding their deaths were different. My grandmother was my father’s mother; my aunt was my mother’s sister. I was able to say goodbye to my grandmother, but not to my aunt. I was unable to attend my grandmother’s funeral in person, but I took my four oldest children to my aunt’s services.

It was just after the New Year when the five of us — my children and I — piled into the minivan for the three-hour drive to New Hampshire. As we pulled out of our driveway, I noticed a large bird of prey — I believe it was a goshawk — sitting on a tree in our front yard, just staring at us, as if trying to portend something sinister and mysterious. The rain started after we crossed the mountains, and it kept up throughout the rest of the day: perfect funeral weather. 

This was the first funeral my children had attended, and the first family funeral I’d attended in nearly twenty years. I expected there to be some debriefing afterwards. But I was surprised when my eldest daughter’s first comment was, “It’s so nice that they have these men here, or else nobody would know what to do.”

By “these men,” she meant the funeral home employees. There were three or four of them — I’m not sure exactly because they were fairly interchangeable large men in long black coats. They were a quiet but constant presence throughout the events of that rainy day: directing parking at the funeral home and the cemetery, ushering people through the visiting hours, moving the casket from funeral home to church to burial plot, taking coats and giving directions to the nearest restroom. I’m not sure what their job description would be: Were they all considered “undertakers?” Whatever their label, they were essential. Without them, as my daughter said, “nobody would know what to do.”

As a general rule, our culture does not handle death well. We spend vast amounts of time and money attempting to stave off the aging process and prolong our lives. We hide our elderly in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Dying often happens behind closed doors in sterile hospitals. We are deeply uncomfortable with the fact of death, and because we spend so much of our lives in denial of death, most of us have lost any sense of a cultural script for how to handle a funeral. Since they have become on-the-job training for grieving, there is an awkwardness to our death rites. “It was strange: One minute we were sad, and then we were eating pizza and chatting,” as one of my children observed. 

So I was impressed that my daughter noticed those men who were unobtrusively directing us mourners as we stumbled through the process of saying goodbye to, commemorating, and burying our dead — all within a few hours. This quietly heroic effort was worthy of our gratitude.

I would like to learn from those men. So much of life thrusts us into the discomfort of witnessing the pain, grief, and tragedies of others. As with death, we lack a script for these times: Our culture prefers youth, beauty, health, a good success story. In our discomfort, we do things that are no help at all: We ignore or deny, give unsolicited advice, offer platitudes or fake cheer, impose our own narratives by insisting that others should feel better — or worse — on our timetable. 

But what if we could learn, like the undertakers, to bear silent witness to the uncomfortable moments in which we are placed? To be present without judgment; our only agenda to help where needed, even if that just means taking a coat, directing parking, showing the way to the bathroom, carrying what needs carrying. 

Then we might all become “local heroes,” as in the poem by that name by the undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch, which concludes, in part: 

Some days all that can be done

is to salvage one sadness from the mess

of sadnesses, to bear one body home,

to lay the dead out among their people,

organize the flowers and casseroles,

write the obits, meet the mourners at the door,

drive the dark procession down through town,

toll the bell, dig the hole, tend the pyre. 

It’s what we do. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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