Dying with Dignity

Today I went to the best funeral I’ve ever attended. I know that sounds sarcastic, but today I am setting aside my usual caustic sarcasm for some honest insight. I learned a lot today. I learned about the admiration colleagues can have for each other, the love of a father for his daughter…and most importantly, how to die with dignity.

I never thought you could die with dignity. As morbid as it sounds, I think about death a lot – perhaps even more than the average person. I’m not afraid of death, just interested by it.

When my husband’s Uncle George started walking with a limp and requiring a cane months ago, he told us that one of his doctors had told him the pain was “all in his head” because they couldn’t find anything wrong with him. At the time, my husband and I chuckled at the idea that he had this imaginary limp. It would be months later that he was finally diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and learned that there wasn’t anything to do but wait to die.

On Saturday morning, George died. He died the way he wanted, the way he planned. He was at home, with his loving wife Maureen. It was later that day when my husband and I learned that George had planned a green funeral. I had heard about green funerals before, but I had never been to one. Basically, the way it was explained to us was that George would not be embalmed, would be buried in a wooden casket and the family would be the ones to lower him into the ground with ropes. (He had been a fan of the western, Shane, and wanted his burial to be similar.) There would be no wake. There would be no machinery to lower the casket. There would be no astroturf covering a big pile of dirt. I was told not to wear heels because we would have to walk through mud to get to the tree under which he wanted to be buried.

It is amazing how you can build up an event in your mind and then when it actually happens it is completely different from what you had imagined.

When we got to the church, there were probably 300 people there to pay their respects. On the large movie screen, they showed a series of photographs, most of them with his daughter, Laura, now a teenager. Several people came to the stage to tell stories about George as a newsroom reporter and editor.

I never knew George the way most of his friends and colleagues did. I rarely saw him, except at family gatherings. Our deepest conversation was the topic of how social media was changing the face of journalism. (As a traditional beat reporter, he was less keen on social media than I was.)

But through his funeral, I learned things I never knew. He kept a journal throughout his illness, and the pastor read several passages from it to the mourners. I was surprised to learn that he wrote about prayer. In fact, he had created a prayer list with his wife, daughter and family on it, even my husband’s family, including wives like me. I had no idea, but this man that I barely knew prayed for me, and for others.

When we arrived at the gravesite, I was relieved to see that the casket was already set up on timbers above the grave. My husband and his mother would not have to be among the pallbearers to bring it over from the hearse. After some prayers, the task of lowering the casket into the ground was looming. The tension in the air was palpable – the slightest mistake could mean a rope snapping. None of us had ever seen much less participated in something like this. My husband, his brother, father and several other male relatives grabbed the ropes from the platform under the casket. As they lifted, three other men pulled the timbers out of the way. Then they respectfully, slowly lowered George in his plain pine box into the ground. Relatives took turns shoveling dirt and tossing sunflowers into the grave. Even as the jarring hollow sound of the dirt hitting the box tore our hearts, it was still the most beautiful burial I have ever seen. It was exactly what George had wanted and planned. It was proof that you can die with dignity.

Later, we went back to the church where several congregation members had set up a lovely fried chicken dinner for the family. We ate heartily while looking at a looping slideshow of photographs and listening to a soundtrack George must have chosen himself. Among the indie rock were some Johnny Cash and Beatles tunes, and I was impressed with his taste in music, much like my own – yet another thing I never knew about him.

This day’s memory will remind me not to make assumptions about a potential new experience, and that I can never possibly know everything about an individual. I’ve also learned that death can be the way you want it to be.

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