My mother would have been startled by the extent of her memorial service but not half as much as I was when an unexpected guest came to speak.
After nearly a year of witnessing my mother’s slow and steady decline, the day had finally come to discuss her funeral. In my mind, the topic should have been broached months earlier, while my mother still had her wits about her. But planning had been procrastinated, in part to give my father time to accept the inevitable. With Mom now in hospice, we sat around my parent’s dining room table, the new Unitarian minister posing questions about Mom’s and our wishes for her memorial service.
To no one’s surprise, our beloved paragon of cultural sophistication and intellect could no longer recall a poem, a song, a lyric, a passage, a photograph, or even a particular bloom that might grace the proceedings of her imminent celebration of life. So instead, my sister, father, the minister, and I talked about the things we felt my mother would appreciate as she slumped nearby in her wheelchair—a seemingly distant observer of an imagined event that held little or no interest for her.
My sense at the time was that my mother was aware of the fact that we wanted her participation. I think she also vaguely realized that her memorial service was something that, were she healthy, she’d want to influence. Yet, when all of a sudden she volunteered, “I’d like to have an open casket,” my father, sister, and I exchanged looks of astonishment.
“Is something wrong?” asked the minister. Yes. Something was wrong. The one thing the three of us had been certain of was that Mom didn’t want to be buried.
When she was younger, she’d wanted her body to be recycled, perhaps restoring someone’s vision, or providing a needed internal organ to prolong a person’s life after an accident or years of suffering from a degenerative disease. She’d also talked about donating her body to science, wincing only slightly when I joked that this might lead to her corpse being used for a medical fraternity prank rather than for the search to cure cancer. Those conversations, however, had transpired many years prior, and she and my father had since settled upon a different plan.
“Don’t you want to be cremated Mom?” I hesitantly ventured.
“Yes, I do” she whispered.
“Then why do you want an open casket?” came my wary follow-up.
“I want to hear what people say about me.”
Mom’s incongruous last wishes provoked a unanimous display of smiles as a surge of relief encircled the table strewn with photo albums, notebooks, neglected mail, old newspapers, used coffee mugs, and prescription bottles.
And yet, it all made sense. A small part of Mom was still with us. The humanitarian who loved parties, her church, and gatherings of all forms, from political protests to picnics with neighboring children; the scholar who loved books and stories—written or oral—in Greek, Latin, English, or French; the homemaker who imbibed NPR while running errands or cooking dinner; the self-described agnostic who rejected all dogma but conceived of an existence beyond the confines of the human body; now wanted to hear the stories that would be told about her after her death.
Weeks later, Mom’s carefully groomed corpse lay in a graceful, wooden casket, the lid swung wide so that light, and sound, and scent, and emotion, might reach its departed resident. In a tizzy, Dad had nearly single-handedly taken down the 10-foot high partition wall that separated the sanctuary from the reception hall. “Charlie, you’ll have a heart attack!” his friends had warned when Dad’s asthmatic puffing gave them cause for alarm. “If this wall stays up, I’ll have a heart attack,” he’d angrily snapped back. My sister and I knew better than to argue. Our father, an architect who scrutinized the utility and harmony inherent in every manmade structure he laid eyes upon, was hell-bent on ensuring that all who showed up would have a direct line of sight to the near-saint with whom he’d shared more than 50 years of his life.
I took my seat 20 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start, using the twin girls that were growing in my belly as a pretense for why I wasn’t up on my feet, greeting our friends and relatives. As I stared at the elegant coffin, knowing that my modest and charitable mother would have never chosen such fancy accommodations, I contemplated the finality of losing the person I considered to be the closest thing I’d ever have to a twin. Certainly, my life going forward would still contain laughter and love and even occasional innocence but I felt as if my very bones now bore a burden that would forever encumber a part of my consciousness.
When my husband Andy took the seat next to me, we discovered that in our haste to leave instructions with a friend who was watching our 23-month-old son, we’d neglected to adequately supply ourselves with tissues. Digging deep into my purse, I salvaged 3 fraying specimens. The minister took her place behind the lectern and began.
My sister had chosen a non-denominational hymn, This is My Song, Oh God of All Nations, to start things off. I couldn’t imagine a better selection. The words described my mother’s ideals to a T. By the time we got to the end of the first verse, tissue #1 was transparent. I looked at Andy who beckoned for a Kleenex of his own. Not gonna happen. I pointed to a dry corner and handed him the sheet of mucus.
And so began a long, long, line of individuals who had known and loved my mother enough to wish to speak at her memorial. Dad always said that upon learning of her terminal diagnosis, the only thing Mom ever mentioned about the matter was that at least she’d made the most of the time she’d had. The parade of friends, colleagues, fellow activists, and relatives delivering tributes was proof of that claim. Their stories provoked chuckles, gulps, sniffles, and sighs, uniting in a fluctuating orchestration of human camaraderie—exactly as Mom would have wanted.
The procession was both heart-wrenching and cathartic, producing more tears of joy than of sorrow. Andy and I developed a multi-ply recycling system, allowing the 2 wettest tissues to dry on the festive red maternity dress covering my thigh as we shared the driest, disintegrating swatch between us.
Everyone spoke from the heart, sharing anecdotes that confirmed all that I knew my mother to be. Until one man came to the lectern that I had never seen nor heard about previously. He was an African-American minister who had known Mom briefly during the 1960s, before our family left our 2-bedroom ranch in Detroit, satisfying my father’s long-held dream of living in the country.
The minister began with a familiar story, describing my mother’s determination to stop the phenomena of white flight from decimating our neighborhood as it had so many blocks throughout the city of Detroit. As Black families claimed the modest middle-class dwellings that dominated the area, my mother went door-to-door, she spoke at church services, PTA sessions, League of Women Voters meetings, and elsewhere, in an effort to convince white residents to welcome their new neighbors. I’d witnessed the drastic demographic shift in my elementary school, the population of which had changed from white to Black over the course of two years. So, I knew that Mom’s efforts to create a diverse and flourishing community had failed miserably.
The fact, however, that this community leader, who had only known my mother briefly more than 35 years prior to her death, had decided to attend her funeral after noticing the obituary in the Detroit News, and now stood before us, praising Mom’s commitment to civil rights, was an unexpected honor that closed with a stunning revelation.
The minister unveiled an ugly episode from our family’s past that my parents, who had never been known to shield my sister or me from harsh realities, had successfully kept secret. At some point during Mom’s lopsided tug-o-war for equality and brotherhood, my parents had looked out their front window to discover a cross burning on our lawn.
I could barely believe my ears. We’d lived in a northern city. Yes, there’d been rioting in the 60s and indisputable bigotry had won the day. But a burning cross? On the lawn outside my bedroom window? Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined such a possibility.
And yet, it all made sense. A small part of Mom’s indefatigable spirit had left its imprint on people we’d never know or even imagine. The scholar who had received a full ride to college after winning Detroit’s city-wide essay contest on civic responsibility; the humanist who had joined the masses that showed up to march down Woodward Avenue when Martin Luther King came to town; the pacifist who had repeatedly headed to Washington DC between 1965 and 1974 to protest U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia; the mother who had returned to the National Mall in May of 2000 to lend her voice to the call for stricter gun control laws; the soft-spoken rebel who upon her retirement after 25 years of teaching public school declared, “Good. Now I’ll have time to go to jail”; not surprisingly had been threatened by small-minded cowards who mistakenly believed that a burning lower-case “t” would stop her in her tracks.
I was with my father when he picked out mom’s casket and I quickly discovered that the process had more to do with his wishes than with hers. I nodded my feigned approval when he selected a graceful, solid cherry coffin, lined with a “Champagne Velvet interior”. The funeral director explained that Dad would also need to buy a second, smaller casket in which to cremate my mother—this one roughly a thousand dollars, so a steal when compared to the first. Foolishly hoping to save my father some expense, I dared to ask if we might rent the more elaborate model, but our dutiful mortician informed us that Michigan state law prohibited it. Coffins could only be used once.
This last piece of information piqued my curiosity to the point where I couldn’t keep from asking, “Well if she’s only going to lie in it for a few hours, what do you do with it after that? Can you at least reuse the wooden shell?”
“No. I’m afraid we can not. We will have to burn it,” he replied, seemingly unaware of the irony of this pronouncement.
I knew that Dad and I would someday laugh about the absurdity of the situation but now was not the time. This was Dad’s final opportunity to spoil his wife. For months he’d cooked her meals, made her smoothies, fluffed her pillows, and tucked the blankets up around her neck. He’d adjusted her bed angle, drawn drapes to keep sunlight out of her eyes, done her laundry, shopped for looser clothing that she could more easily slide in and out of, tied her shoes, combed her hair, and handed her her lipstick. My opinions about how to treat her remains were of no consequence.
Mom had also asked to have one-third of her ashes placed in each of 3 separate locations: in the rose garden of her church; in the cemetery next to her parents; and, in a container for my father to keep with him until he died. However, I’m sure she never envisioned that Dad would purchase 3 elaborately decorated urns to fulfill these roles.
And so it was that my mother, who never spent a dime on herself unless she felt it furthered a cause that would lift others, received one of the most extensive and elaborate funeral services she could have ever imagined, even when she had had all her wits about her.
The paintings in this post have their origins in France but now hang in the Detroit Institute of Arts, which houses one of the largest and most significant art collections in the United States. My mother cherished this museum and visited it regularly throughout her life.