When I was eleven, my cousin Kirk died. He was born with a developmental disability and he never walked or talked. He died when he was only six and his funeral was the first I attended. The funeral remains an iconic memory; the assembling of the extended family at the funeral parlor, the procession to Holy Family Church, the ritual of the Catholic funeral mass, and the period of hushed sadness.
When I was a little older, one of my paper route customers died and my mother suggested I visit the funeral parlor to pay my final respects. I must have been thirteen, the age at which a young woman was mature enough to do such things alone. I walked to the funeral parlor, signed the guest book, and extended my condolences to Mrs. Beganny.
My paternal grandmother died during one of my college summers. I was working at the shoe factory and I heard my name announced over the loud speaker. “Julie Baumer, please come to the supervisor’s office.” I nervously approached the office door, wondering if I had stuck one of my piecework tags on my production sheet upside down. No, it was a phone call from my mother, back in the days before portable communication devices. “Nana died, I think you should come home,” she said.
The funeral proceeded in a similar manner as my cousin Kirk’s funeral.
When I lived “away” in New Hampshire, my mother always made a point to let me know when various people from town died. She clipped the obituary from the local paper and mailed it to me and if the death was of importance (meaning “perhaps you should come home to attend the funeral”) she would call me.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Maine has the oldest population in the nation. Like my mother, I now get the local paper and scan the obituaries closely to determine if a sympathy card should be sent or a funeral is on my calendar. Sometimes Helen and I discuss the deaths in the paper or we review the long list of Franco-American names repeated during the French Mass on Saturday evening.
On Wednesday, a woman in my brother’s high school graduating class died. She and her parents attended Holy Family Church and I can see the pew they regularly filled in my mind’s eye. I don’t know how she ended up living in Dallas, but the Facebook posts indicated Debbie’s wish was to be buried in Maine with her parents. Her cancer had been financially devastating; her husband set up a “Give Forward” crowd funding page to help defray the costs of bringing her home to Maine.
I tossed and turned last night, thinking about all this. Intellectually, I know that once we die, we are somewhere beyond the scourge and pain of death; what remains of our corporeal body is of less significance. For the dead, the suffering of this world is finished. Yet, this desire to be buried alongside one’s mother and father saddened me. I thought about how long I had wanted to be among the living of my own family for a multitude of reasons, including the ability to be with them in their final hours.
In Muriel Spark’s novel, Memento Mori, a mysterious crank caller reminds the characters “remember, you must die.” None of us know when we will die, but part of living well is having some comfort with the idea of our finality.