We were recently asked to meet a lady, whose husband is in hospice care, and with a few of her friends. We drove to her house not knowing what to expect. We cared for our own parents in our home. Two had Alzheimer’s and one had Parkinson’s disease. Yet we had never met these people. We were just asked to meet with her to talk about her options for funeral preparations.
Death is a tragedy under any circumstances. Death was never part of God’s plan for us and as such, it’s a terrible tragedy. This lady’s husband (let’s call her Judy) was a very accomplished and rather famous artist (we’ll call him Bob). They had a long a happy life together until he was stricken with Lewy Body Dementia which has progressed until he is left nearly incapacitated. When we arrived we were invited to meet him in his expansive studio where his hospital bed was set in one corner. He is bed ridden but still able to communicate haltingly.
Lewy Body Dementia is a terrible disease that combines some of the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease with those of Parkinson’s disease. It slowly robs the brain of memories of friends, family and ultimately language and motor skills.
We greeted him and passed a few pleasantries. Judy graciously offered us a tour of his gallery and office space. She is justifiably proud of his accomplishments. Canvases large and small were hung from floor to cathedral ceiling in the huge studio. They told the story of a life of exploration and expression as she and her friends described the many “periods” of his work.
Judy had dealt with Bob’s slow deterioration for several years. She told us of times in public settings when he forgot his friends and times when he became agitated not knowing where he was and who he was with. These are all too familiar stories for those of us who have dealt with the disease. Finally, she said, she had to come to grips with the fact that he is going to die. There is no telling when, but she is finally ready to talk about it and plan ahead. This is an important point to reach. It is better to plan ahead than to be blind-sided by all that is involved with preparing a funeral at the last moment.
One cannot help but feel anguish for her their life together comes to an end. Our hope was to help ease the loss by simply listening and talking with her. When we were seated in the living room she thanked us for writing “A Christian Ending” and her friend for giving it to her. Then she said, “He is adamant that he doesn’t want to be embalmed, so what are my options.” We asked her what she wanted to do. She told us they already have a cemetery and that they will use a funeral home.
Using a funeral home and commercial cemetery are perfectly fine. You simply have to find out what the cemetery requires. Do they require a vault or liner? That’s about it. Commercial cemeteries often require these to prevent ground settling and to increase profit. Regarding the funeral home, we explained that they work for her and she should simply decide what she wants and tell them. In our state and county there are no laws governing how or when one must be buried. The laws on the books are to regulate “professional” mortuaries and to protect the public from unscrupulous funeral directors. We cautioned her that she may have to demand it her way and not be bullied into services she does not need. She assured us that she was not the type to be bullied. When she mentioned the funeral home we told her that we have a working relationship with them and they should help her with whatever she needs.
A reputable funeral home can be a real asset to any community of friends, family or church in a time of need. It took a little while for our preferred funeral provider to understand what we need and want from them. They also had to understand, in no uncertain terms, that we know the law and will not be fooled or bullied into buying services we do not need. Since we reached that understanding they have been quite willing and gracious to provide whatever service we request. We have washed, anointed and dressed several bodies in a parlor which they provide for us.
Judy told us she would not be able to participate in the preparation of Bob’s body and that she didn’t want it to happen in the house. That is very understandable. She was relieved to know that it could take place elsewhere. She told us it would be a closed casket funeral. Then she asked about his lying in repose at the church. That is certainly possible but also between her and her church. They all love the ancient tradition of reading the psalms over the body from the time of death until the burial and are planning to organize around-the-clock readers for this. A lot of this depends on the timing of his death, arrival of friends and family and the church schedule. The funeral home can provide refrigeration if the time is extended. This would likely curtail some of the psalm reading but we must be flexible for some things can’t be known until the end.
We prefer a quick burial, within a day or two, three at most. This is not for any legal or practical reason. We’ve kept bodies in the church up to five days (see Archbishop DMITRI’s funeral). However, from our own experience the time between the death and the burial is the most difficult time for the bereaved loved ones. The burial really does bring a finality that is essential for the grieving process. The sooner the burial takes place the sooner the bereaved can begin to start their new life without the departed loved one.
We talked for some time and as we did, we could see relief coming over her. We answered each of her questions as gently as we possibly could. In the end we told her, “If there is one thing we’d like to convey to you it is that you can have it any way you want it. You are in control of the preparations.” She is fortunate to have a strong support network. She can decide what he would want, assign friends or family to a task and not have to worry about it herself.
This is the way it used to be until the professionals convinced us that they could do it better. They may have some specialized equipment such as gurneys and hearses, but they cannot provide the love and care of family and friends. Everyone who takes part in funeral preparations for friends or family is amazed at how rewarding it can be. It is our last opportunity to honor a child of God who has left us. It is the final tragedy that we all must face. Elizabeth and I certainly never imagined we would be in our position of helping people with this process. We didn’t seek it out and we accept no payment for our help. It appears that, at least for the time being, this is our ministry. Seeing the relief our conversation brought to Judy is reward enough for us.