Each Family is Special

As is often the case, it is feast or famine in my business. After no funerals for six weeks, we now have three services in these two days. Two are memorial services. A memorial service is a service without the body of the deceased present. Sometimes an urn is present, sometimes not. These are often called “life celebrations”.I believe that all services are life celebrations as well as “death acknowledgements”. (This can be thought for another day.)
We also have a full service funeral-a service with the deceased in a casket, procession to the cemetery and burial-today with military honors.
Yes, it is going to be a busy and somewhat hectic day. But we can’t let it seem that way! We must focus on each service without thinking about the next one. We must make each family feel that they are our only concern; that they are the most important part of our day.
We may have three funerals but each family has only one-the very special one for their very special loved one. It is our job to help make it that way.
Time to go to work!

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Why the Cemetery

Many of you who follow my blog came to me through Jon Katz. As readers of his, you know that he now walks at our local cemetery, Woodlands Cemetery. (for non-followers he is at http://www.bedlamfarm.com) Today he wrote about the tombstone of James and Roxanna.
Quoting Jon, “Seeing this tombstone though, made me feel a little differently. I thought for the first time that it might be nice to lie in this cemetery side by side, in a loving clasp for all time. Maria could design something quite wonderful and strange to go on the tombstone, she could sketch us walking together or holding hands, which we often do. Maria laughed, and said she loved the idea of both of us ending up as ashes, dust to dust, being scattered here and there. “
I would like to share with Jon and Maria and all of you out there, that you can have it both ways. If you choose cremation as the final disposition of your human body, have your ashes scattered where ever it is that you want them and save a little to put in a permanent place-a place called a Cemetery
I don’t know why, but I have always loved cemeteries. In my hometown of Mullens, West Virginia, there is no cemetery. The nearest ones are at least 30 miles away. If you want to visit the grave of an old friend or a beloved teacher, you don’t even know where to go. I think I felt, even as a young person, that something was missing.
What is it about cemeteries that I love? There are many things, starting with the peace and quiet. There is not a great noise level present except on mowing days. There always seems to be a feeling of a quiet hush even when I am engaging in conservation with a friend while walking in the cemetery.
I have heard it said that cemeteries are a waste of land. I feel that cemeteries are wonderful way to conserve land. They are often an oasis in the middle of urban and suburban sprawl. The “Rural Cemetery” movement, which began in the 1830s, created final resting places that were also attractive parks that provided a place for the general public to enjoy refined outdoor recreation amidst art and sculpture previously available only for the wealthy. They are their own kind of land conservancy where there can never be a busy highway or shopping plaza built.
Every tombstone aka headstone, marks a life lived down through the generations and will be there for the generations to come. Every name on a headstone is still a name in the universe. There is a record that that person lived here on earth. Today we may have no knowledge of the persons lying under the ground but we still know the names of James and Roxanne Bennett. They are gone but in some way they are not forgotten. This is a tribute to their time here on earth.
Cemeteries are as much about Life about Death. Yet they help us face that Death is inevitable and by facing this, we can live Life more fully. They are a place to remember those who have gone before us and to reflect on those who will come after us. They help us understand that every life is of importance.
I hope it is many years before Jon and Maria have need of a tombstone but I also hope that they reconsider having one. And perhaps you, my reader, will also give some thought before saying, “Just scatter my ashes.”
P.S. I want written on my tombstone—Here lies Elizabeth, buried amongst those she buried.

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Strange Life

What a strange life I have.  I spend my Life waiting for Death.  My Life revolves around the phone call telling me that my services are needed.  I make plans, only to have them changed.  I remember a dinner party that I was giving several years ago when my guests arrived to find a note saying “Everything is ready.  Please serve yourselves.  We will be back soon.”

I do not consider myself unreliable, I am just unpredictable.  For the past 18 years of owning our funeral home I have been on call, ready to work when ever I am needed.  My family and friends have understood but it has not always made them happy.  I have changed plans, even cancelled vacations, to be there when a family needed me.  It was just part of my Life or maybe I should say It was my Life and still is for the time being.

My business has changed in many ways.  There are not as many deaths in our community; families want less services; fewer and fewer people see the value in having their loved ones body present.  Too many of the living say, “oh, just cremate me and spread my ashes in the back yard.”

I want to scream STOP.  I want to reach out and tell people that there is great importance in the rituals that are part of Death.  The human body may be a temple for the soul but it is also a loved vessel that was a human being.  It should be cared for not just disposed of.

A new friend of mine told me that she did not want to see her grandmother in her casket because “she did not want to see a dead person made up to look like a living person.”  That certainly has me thinking.

There must be a middle ground between the fancy caskets and the direct cremation.  I am searching  and will keep doing so as I keep trying to live my Life and continue to wait for Death.

 

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Hiding Out

Yesterday I received a pleasant surprise. The Rescue Mama sent comments about several of my blogs. How did she find me? i haven’t written since last January! It is amazing to me that once you put yourself out there on a blog you are always there.
I have been hiding out. I would like to say it is because I have been sooooooo busy that I just couldn’t find time. This is not the case. I think I have been hiding out because my being is in such turmoil that I haven’t wanted to share myself with any one.
Yes, I know every single human being has their problems. This however is not comforting when we are in the midst of our own life. I know I have much, much to be grateful for but I am having difficulty getting past my own negativity and that is hard for me to admit.
I briefly looked back at what I had written last year and I seem to be in the same place as I was, lamenting about my lack of business at our funeral home, changing funeral trends, etc, etc.
I need to let go of this and do what I started out to do on this blog-tell stories about my funeral experiences, share the funny and the sad.
I am hoping this can be a new begining. May the Rescue Mama will help rescue me.

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ROAD TRIP IN THE SNOW

My husband was born in Vermont, in the middle of January .I am certain there was snow, probably a considerable amount, covering the earth at the time of his arrival.  I never thought to ask his mother about it and of course, it is now too late.

I, too, was born in January.  I was born in Mullens, West Virginia.  Even though most of West Virginia is south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the state does get snow.  I know I have seen pictures of me where the snow was over my head.

You could say that snow was part of our being from our beginning.  So why do I look out my window at the falling, accumulating white stuff and cringe?

My husband used to love to drive in the snow.  I remember a day, about 20 years ago.  It was during the time I was living away from home, doing my residency in funeral directing.  The funeral home was only 35 miles away but since I was on call 24/6-I got one day off- I had to live in an apartment above the funeral home. In order to make the trek home to Cambridge weekly, I bought studded snow tires for my Volkswagen Fox.  Snowy roads or clear roads, I wanted to be able to get to my house.  I missed my home.

There was a BLIZZARD predicted when I was at home one week. My boss called and told me to stay home for an extra day or so and not try to travel into work.  So now that I didn’t have to go to work my husband saw this as a marvelous opportunity for A ROAD TRIP IN THE SNOW—the perfect opportunity to see how those studded snow tires really worked!

We headed north making the first stop at the funeral home in the next town.  We didn’t own our funeral home back then.  My husband worked for Mr. Ackley and would sometime help out tin the neighboring town.  (I was only a lowly resident.)  Jon, the owner of the funeral home, was busy preparing for the storm, making sure his plow was working since he needed to be able to get out in case there was a death call. (People do die during storms and want us to respond.)  Well, since we were already out, my husband thought we should drive over Rupert Mountain and go to Manchester, VT and do a bit of shopping. Oh well, he was driving and I have the utmost confidence in his driving in the snow ability.

We ventured onward.  We saw hardly anyone else out.  We rounded a corner and slid.  How in the world he did it, but the car slid right between a utility pole and a mail box, perfect, just like it had been planned.  We were at the bottom of the mountain when this happened.  “Perhaps we should turn around and go home,” I piped up.  “Oh, it won’t be bad.  Let’s just give it a try,” said my crazy, Vermonter husband.

We crawled up that mountain, inch by inch.  I know when to keep silent and this was one of those times.  I do have to admit, it was beautiful, and eerie and scary.  We made it to the top and down the other side—at least part of the mission accomplished.  On the way to Manchester we stopped in the J. K. Adams Woodworking Store.  Even though there were few customers, it was opened, so how bad could the storm be?  I bought a cutting board that I refer to as “The Blizzard Board”.

Next stop, Manchester and the Bass Shoe Outlet.  The snow was coming down hard, visibility very limited but when we got to the store it was opened-so I ask you, how bad could the storm really be? There were a few other customers so we took our time looking around for loafers for my husband, something he had decided he wanted. We had been there around 10 minutes when a young man approached us.  “Could you please make your selection immediately.  Somehow we just got the word that we were supposed to be closed an hour ago.  It is blizzard conditions and there is a state of emergency declared.  No one but emergency vehicles should be out!”

We looked at one another.  It really is a storm and it really is bad.  He bought a pair of loafers and we headed home.

The ride was beautiful all along the Battenkill River with no one out but us two, a very Dr. Zhizago world. He drove slowly and with great confidence. Yes, we were glad to get home, safe and sound.   But it was a wonderful adventure that we would always remember.

Today I look out the window at the falling snow, a possible 8 to 12 inches.  That means a lot of snow to plow and shovel.  It is times like this that I wish we lived at the funeral home and only had one place to clear.  Every year it gets harder.  Every winter, Florida looks better.  The thought of A ROAD TRIP IN THE SNOW seems crazy– but I think I will suggest one!

I started writing this thinking how the snow made me feel Old but after recalling that wonderful adventure, I think I must put on my boots and go out into that beautiful snowy world.  Maybe I can convince him to go to Manchester for some shopping!

We both have birthdays this month and we need to remind ourselves to enjoy every day and that we are only as old as we let ourselves be!

Onward! I just asked.  He’s willing.  Pictures to follow.

The minute I posted this, the phone rang.  we are off on a road trip but it is for a death call.  That’s life in our profession!

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PANIC!

Baby, it’s cold up here in the north county and expected to get colder, after we have 8 to 12 inches of snow.  So when I started out 2014 with being awaken at 2 AM with loud, terrible noise coming from our boiler/furnace-I don’t really know the difference-panic set in.  After deciding it wasn’t going to blow up-I made a fast exit plan to grab Arnie-the favorite cat and the dogs and let Jack-the pain in the ___ cat and my husband fend for themselves-I turned down the thermostats so they wouldn’t call for much heat and went back to bed. When I got up around 6 AM and turned up the heat a bit, the boiler came on and so did the noise.

 I remember the day we bought “Scarlet”, over 24 years ago.  On February 17, 1989 our home burned down, not quite to the ground, but almost.  It was a difficult ordeal but with the help of friends and insurance, we got through it and rebuilt the house.  It was my husband’s second time to build the house.  He had gutted it 20 years before when he was married to his first wife and completely renovated it.  Having to do it all over again was really hard for him.  We were about four months into the project when we went to look at this combination wood/oil boiler that he had read about.  It was expensive but we decided to go for it and it was the first thing about the rebuilding project that I saw him excited about.

For many years we mostly used Scarlet as a wood boiler.  Burning wood is a lot of work.  We would buy log lengths and then cut, split and stack the wood.  Then you have to bring in the wood and tend the fire.  As time went on we found this more and more difficult to do so for the past several years we have been oil consumers.  Since Scarlet was built to mainly use wood, her appetite for oil is voracious.  We have talked about replacing her with a more energy efficient model but she is like an old friend, actually part of the family!

I know it was New Year’s Day, so I waited until 8 AM before calling Carlton, our wonderful heating guy.  He said he would be here after his wife made him the special breakfast she had planned.  (funeral directors are not the only ones on call 24/7). When he arrived it only took him a few minutes to asset the situation it wasn’t good.  The ball bearings in the motor where shot.  The motor would have to be replaced and maybe other parts and maybe he had them, maybe not.

I paced the floor; I tried to stay busy; I worked on a plan for what to do if he couldn’t fix it.  My husband worked on his crossword puzzle and occasionally checked in on Carlton.  I tried to stay calm but I wanted action-shouldn’t we be bringing in wood in case we needed to build a fire in our little wood stove!  But I keep my mouth shut and finally left with the dogs for a walk.

When I returned I smelled the comforting fragrance of oil burning.  Scarlet was running!!! Carlton had once again given her new life. 

So I start the New Year with gratitude.  I am grateful to Carlton for coming when I needed him and for persevering when it looked hopeless.  And I am grateful to my husband who doesn’t panic.  He leaves that up to me.

I look forward to 2014 and whatever it brings. Actually, I look forward to every day. I hope you do to.

                        “Scarlet”

 

                    Image

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Purpose Fullfillment

After reading my post “One Last Funeral”, a reader (and fellow blogger at http://www.everonward.typepad.com) wrote and asked, “How do you keep the unexpected, the too early deaths like this one from depressing you?”

In all honesty, death does not depress me.  It saddens me, sometimes very deeply. But death is such a natural part of my life that it is not depressing.  If you look back in the early days of my blog this past September you will read how “the lack of death”, the changing trends in my chosen profession and the ever evolving, necessary use of technology put me into a state of depression!  I felt like I was losing my purpose in life and I fell into a deep, black hole!

When a death is unexpected or tragic, I feel that my help is needed even more so.  Families are in a state of shock and the guidance of the funeral director can make a terrible situation at least bearable.  Many people have never dealt with the death of a loved one and have no idea of what to do; they have no idea of what the options are.  We, the funeral director, are there to educate while we comfort.  We are there to help put the pieces together so that when a family looks back to that time there is a sense of peace and hopefully some good memories. 

It is a difficult job.  I cry with families and I cry for families.  There are times when I have no idea what I am going to say or how I am going to guide.  I ask for help and guidance and try to act out of love and most of the time it works.

I remember an incident two years ago when a family was really annoying me.  I had a very special weekend planned when a man died on Friday afternoon.  The son who was making the arrangements would just not cooperate with my time schedule!  I had to work around his milking schedule as he was a dairy farmer.  This meant I had to change all my plans and I was not a happy camper.  Then he had the audacity to be late for the time he had set!  When he walked in my door, I was smiling on the outside but fuming on the inside.  But then he said, “ I’ve never done this before.  You have to help me.”  My anger dissolved, my heart blossomed and I did what I love to do best. 

Yes, perhaps it is weird to say but death does not depress me.  It gives me the opportunity to fulfill my purpose.  For that I am grateful.

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