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Musings on a Free Lunch About Cremation Preplanning

Thinking about cremation provokes other questions about the end of our lives

By Eileen Vorbach Collins

The third time the flyer came in the mail I asked my husband if he'd be interested in a free lunch at the Outback Steak House where we'd learn about cremation services.

We had both been in the position of having to make hurried funeral arrangements for loved ones who'd given us little advance notice. Reeling in grief, still in shock and disbelief, we had chosen caskets, burial sites, arranged viewings in his case, shiva preparations in mine. Hoping to never be faced with such a task again, we made reservations for the lunch.

A burger on a tray at a restaurant meeting about cremation preplanning. Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

Several years ago, we signed our advance directives, checking the boxes to make our wishes clear. Now I can't remember which boxes I checked. CPR? Intubation? Feeding tube? It's time to take another look at that. As long as the papers are in the right place, not locked up in the safe deposit box or in the bottom of the sock drawer, our wishes are likely to be honored.

According to an article in Harvard Health Publications, copies of these documents should be given to your designated health care agent and any alternative agents and filed with your physician. Note on each copy where the original documents are kept.

I look at the glossy pages in our packet and imagine my husband in the gold urn with his crossword puzzle, me next to him on the mantel in the silver one with my Sudoku.

There are two other couples at the Outback Steak House in Port Charlotte, Fla., near our home. Except for Brian, the Certified End-of-Life Counselor, I suspect I am the youngest by a decade. For one guy, this doesn't exactly look like advanced planning. Brian has prepared a PowerPoint presentation that he shows us on his laptop. It's not a very big screen, but we each have our packet of hand-outs to follow along.

I look at the glossy pages in our packet and imagine my husband in the gold urn with his crossword puzzle, me next to him on the mantle in the silver one with my Sudoku. That won't work though. We have no mantel and no family who would want us on theirs. My son lives on a boat.

Perusing the Price List

Brian guides us through a number of options and add-ons, the most enticing is the Travel Protection Plan. The price is reasonable and we will have "Complete peace of mind with operators available 24 hours a day to assist." 

There's a price list for accessories; urns, urn burial vaults, keepsakes, bracelets, necklaces. I'm a frugal one, so I don't spend much time there but it's the kind of thing my husband would be likely to go for if I left him to do this on his own.

My dear husband of eleven years worries that I might have hurt feelings that he, whether embalmed or turned to ash, will go to the pre-purchased burial plot in another state where his late former wife and their son are interred, waiting for him to join them. Their tombstone has his name and date of birth already engraved. Although he has suggested I be buried there as well, I have no intention of intruding on that family reunion.

My plan is to go to the majestic giant redwoods that my son showed me when I visited him in California. Brian tells me that if I were to "pass quietly in my sleep" while visiting, my son would be refunded the cost of transporting my cremated remains to California. I wonder why even Brian finds it necessary to use euphemisms. Why he can't speak the words? Death. Die. Dead. 

When I mention to friends that we are looking into pre-planning our cremation, some seem to think it's morbid. We are all well into middle age or beyond with our various afflictions and well-appointed apothecary cabinets. We exercise, plan healthy plant-based meals and try to minimize stress. We're in no hurry "to move on, pass, or go to that better place" but we're realists. Our day will come.

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I'm downsizing now so my son won't be burdened with my collection of preschool art work, high school yearbooks and ill-fitting clothing. Scraps of paper, cassette tapes, cast-off musical instruments and shoes I haven't worn in five years. The ancient Egyptians took it with them, but I prefer to divest myself of the hoard before I go.

The Stories I Really Want to Know

Brian, the Certified End of Life Counselor, barely touches on the things I really want to know. The stories. There are many creative ways people deal with cremains. Amulets, rings with special chambers, coral reefs, ashes packed into plantable boxes with seeds and dirt so you can, posthumously, tend your own funeral flowers. I wish he'd tell us stories about that. The choices people make.  

By far, the most poignant story I've ever heard was while in graduate school earning a degree in pastoral care.  A film showed a man who put his wife's ashes into capsules and took one every day along with his other pills. It made him feel closer. He wanted to keep her with him always. Some thought this creepy, but I understood.

When my husband's ashes are with his young family, when mine are nurturing the redwoods, none of those keepsakes will matter.

After my daughter died when she was just 15, I sat in a room alone with the casket, my fingers in the hole in the bottom until they came to roll it away for the service. It made me feel closer.

I don't know what I would do if I had her ashes. I might not be able to part with them. I have the cards she made, yellowed now with the glitter she loved drifting to the bottom of the box. Baby teeth. A lock of hair. Her Brownie sash, covered front and back with badges. Blue ribbons from the county fair. Her silver flute.

The Need to Lighten My Load

Someday I will let go of that stuff. It's been over twenty years. I need to do it so my son won't have to. So strangers won't toss out the baby teeth. The I Love You Mommy cards with the backward letter Y. The moonstone earrings she gave me.

Still thinking of all the stuff I own, the need to lighten that load, I don't want to be like the pill swallower. I want to be able, when the time comes, to let go. To tuck my husband, should he pass first, into the earth where he believes his other loved ones wait. To honor his wishes with the music and prose that he loves. I'll arrange that military salute like he asked. Then I'll pack up his belongings and send his clothes to those who could use them. I'll give his kayak and bike to a kid, his books and his golf clubs to anyone who wants them.

Far more difficult will be deciding what to do with his many boxes of photographs from the time before we met, the time with his other family. Pictures of his wedding. His son's first Christmas. Little League games. It's these photographs that my husband treasures, though he seldom looks at them. I know he will never let them go. I know this because I have my own boxes of photographs.

When my husband's ashes are with his young family, when mine are nurturing the redwoods, none of those keepsakes will matter. Still, you'll have to pry the brittle Mother's Day card out of my cold dead hands. Or maybe I'll just take it with me.

Eileen Vorbach Collins
Eileen Vorbach Collins is a Baltimore native. Her work has been published in a number of literary journals and received several awards and two nominations for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently querying a collection of linked essays about child loss and bereavement by suicide. You can find her on Twitter @evorbachcollins. Read More
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