By Whitney Fleming
“I can’t do it. I can’t go into the room with all the caskets. I can’t do it again,” she told me.
“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll take care of everything,” I stated easily, as I knew that my father wanted to be cremated, which reduced the decision-making burden. Although I was the youngest in my family, the responsibility would be mine. My brother and sister had their children to manage, and I was the most involved when it came to my dad’s care.
“Just do what you think is right. I just need you to take care of it.”
My mom wasn’t much older than I was when she buried her own mother, along with three teenage siblings. They died in a fire started from bad electrical wiring in their dilapidated Ohio farm house. As the oldest of eight, she managed the burial arrangements, and selected the caskets for her teenage brothers and sister. The act of selecting small coffins for young people yet to reach their prime crushed her to the core. It was a weight she carried around with her each day.
She was the strongest woman I knew, but even she had her limits.
Later that morning, I walked down carpeted stairs and looked around at the gleaming wood boxes with the tops propped open. The display reminded me of a used car dealership. As I passed by a sign that read: “Elegant premier trimming made of solid knotty pine,” I could not resist running my fingers across the soft interior. It wasn’t. It was simultaneously creepy and comforting.
The lower level of the building was cool, and I felt the bumps immediately rise on my bare arms. I pushed back any curiosity as to the reason the air conditioning needed to be set so low, and followed the funeral home director back to his office. I suddenly remembered a joke my former boss, the U.S. Congressman for my small Florida hometown, often told constituents: “Yep, the two biggest exports out of our district are tropical fish and coffins. True story.”
Despite the setting, I felt confident, almost empowered. I was in charge of this mission. As I turned into the small office, I saw an entrance marked “private” at the opposite end of Casket Central. I shuddered, wondering if my father laid behind those doors. For a brief moment, I thought about asking, but I quickly changed my mind.
My dad died a shadow of the man he was in his prime. He received his cancer diagnosis with the prognosis that he only had three months to live. He lasted three years, but it had been painful to watch him deteriorate — struggling to breathe like a fish out of water, coughing so hard he passed out, and edema to the point we feared he would lose his limbs.
The saving grace was I had the opportunity to leave nothing unsaid. There was no drama between my dad and I. There never was. Our relationship remained as close as ever, including spirited political debates and Monday morning quarterbacking about the University of Florida football team. I spoke with him nearly every day and visited as often as I could. I ended every phone call with an “I love you” and concluded each visit with an extra long hug. It was painfully apparent how fragile my dad’s health was, and I knew every interaction could be my last.
Although no one is truly ready to lose someone, I was fortunate that we had that extra time together. Even so, I still felt lost and unsure in a world without my father in it.
I sat down in a plush leather chair and put my game-face on. This is just business, I continued to tell myself. Sign, pay and move on to the next task. Do your mom a solid.
“How are you doing?” he asked warmly, with a slight emphasis on the last word.
“I’m fine,” I lied. “I was ready for it. It was a long time coming, and I’m thankful he’s out of pain.” These words were my mantra since my brother called 24 hours earlier to inform me that my father had passed away on New Year’s Day. Leave it to my dad to delay dying until the first of the year, ensuring he received a tax break.
He offered me the perfect closed-lipped smile as he nodded his head up and down.
With the pleasantries over, now he put his game face on, because this was a business transaction for him. He pulled out a file with the words “LANG, JAMES” imprinted in red capital letters and said, “Let’s get started.”
“You’ll receive the autopsy report in a few days, and then you can get the death certificate. You’ll want several copies, but you can talk to your Probate Attorney about that,” he stated matter of fact.
I found it fascinating that my father needed to have an autopsy at all. One incision into his chest and the pathologist would see the grapefruit sized tumor that grew inside my dad’s black lungs for years. The cause of death would be heart failure but it should have read Marlboro Lights.
We discussed details for a few minutes and I readily made quick decisions. No open casket visitation. The memorial service would be from four p.m. to six p.m. in the chapel. I would bring the music and photographs. I did not need a florist referral. I managed each decisions as I did the rest of my life — with confidence, efficiency and control.
Without skipping a beat, he reached for a pamphlet and said, “Have you thought about the container you would like your Dad to be cremated in?”
“What?” I probably responded a little too curtly. “There are options? I thought you just, you know, did your thing.”
“Mmmhmm. Let’s go over your choices. You have your basic particle board, which would be appropriate for your situation because there will be no viewing, or you can select a standard tray view container, which is more sturdy, or you can select something from this category, which includes a variety of woods and interior options.”
I was not prepared for this. I scanned the brochure like a restaurant menu. My eyes were reading the words, but they were not transmitting to my brain. Was my dad worth recycled corrugated paper or honey oak? Fish sandwich or Surf n’ Turf?
I could feel my heart beating in my ears as I held back the tears I had yet to release. My eyes landed on an ornate walnut cremation container valued at $1500. This was the Cadillac of caskets with all the upgrades. This was the casket I wanted for my dad. This was the casket he deserved. This was ridiculous.
I started to panic. My options were selecting a box that treated my father like a homeless man or one like King Tut. A lifetime of memories rushed my brain like a tsunami. My dad was larger than life. He once bought a pin ball machine on a whim and would go out of his way to visit McDonald’s just to collect a set of Star Wars glasses. He wrote inspirational quotes on my lunch bags each day, some of which I still remember verbatim. He knew exactly how to deliver a joke and convinced me he ate at Hooter’s just for the wings. He loaned money to those in need, and if they didn’t pay it back he would say, “They needed it more than I did.” He cherished his family and drove my mom crazy with his impulsiveness.
What was the value of a man like this going for these days?
I could not look away from the expensive coffer, with words like velvet interior, wood composite and ivory crepe taunting my sub-conscious. This decision seemed simultaneously monumental and absurd. Would purchasing cardboard mean I loved my dad less? Would he come back to haunt me if I decided to buy a funerary box that was the same price as the first car he bought me?
I tentatively asked, “What do most people do?” I held my breath, uncertain if I really wanted the answer.
“It depends. You just have to do what’s right for you and your family,” he responded.
I looked at him with exasperation. Big help, buddy.
I gazed at the brochure once more. For a brief moment, my body filled with rage. Rage for an industry that was taking advantage of people in their weakest moments. Rage at my friend who benefitted from this. Rage at my father who put me in this position because he couldn’t — wouldn’t — quit smoking.
The love for my father was being reduced to a choice of wood. I seethed, desperately trying to hold back the sarcastic comments swirling in my head. I love my father a lot, so I’ll take the Bradbury model please. The cream interior is fine, but I am not sure if we need the veneer upgrade. I don’t want to look ostentatious to the man operating the crematory.
I struggled to regain control. I closed my eyes and thought about what my father would do.
He was the type of guy that allowed the used car salesman to win. “I could have gotten a better deal, but he has mouths to feed at home too,” he would say, assuring me that he had mad negotiating skills at the ready when needed. His office looked like a 7-11, with snacks and soda stacked on the book case for his employees to ransack at any time. When he recognized someone was having a bad day, he’d pull out one of his best inappropriate jokes, usually starting with “A priest, a rabbi and a monk went into a bar….” He was about doing the little things in life in a big way.
As suddenly as it left, my confidence returned, surging through my body. It was almost as if my father was sitting in the chair next to me, urging me to make the right decision. This may be the last thing I would do for him, but it was not symbolic of the love we shared.
Unable to say the words, I pointed and in the most convincing voice I could muster said, “That one.”
He nodded and jotted the numbers down as I handed over my American Express.
“This may be the oddest way I earn hotel points,” I joked awkwardly.
After finishing the paperwork, the director of Death walked me to my car and gave me a hug that I didn’t think was part of my package. “You did great,” he said. It was my turn for the close-lipped smile and nodding, which became my standard form of communication for the next few days.
When I walked through the door of the house where my dad no longer lived, my mom rushed to ask me how it went. We were now part of the same casket club.
As I told her about the cremation container decision, I knew she was struggling to hold back tears. “I hope it’s okay, Mom. I went with the cheapest option, because nothing else made sense and didn’t feel right.”
She gave me a closed-lip smile, and then said the words that gave me peace.
“It’s what he would have wanted.”
Whitney Fleming is a public relations consultant and blogger at Playdates on Fridays. The mom of three tween daughters, she is still figuring out what she wants to do when she grows up; but as long as she is writing, she is at peace.