“Just leave me on the A train,” said my father. “It’ll take at least three days for somebody to realize I’m not just some old guy asleep in a corner seat.”
Some folks delight in choreographing the future ceremonies marking their deaths the way a director of community theater might enjoy choreographing his or her version of “Mamma Mia!” They create multiple invitation lists and play lists with equal enthusiasm. (“I insist that both Bette and Bettina attend; I don’t care if they hate each other. And I want ’Send in the Clowns’ to be played every 20 minutes on a loop.”) They get a kick out of imagining how memories will be shared and how both tears and laughter will sustain the mourners.
My father was, to put it mildly, not one of those people. He hated funerals, loathed what he regarded at the theatrics of enforced mourning, and thought cemeteries were a waste of good real estate. Despite his protestations, my brother and I did not leave my father on the A train nor on any other branch of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
My brother forced my dad to make a decision about where he wanted his ashes placed and what, if anything, he wanted us to do. So we played Tony Bennett’s version of “The Best Is Yet To Come” and afterward we ate lasagna that I’d cooked the day before.
I’m like my father; I’m not a “funeral person.” I’m a wedding person, a birthday person and an anniversary party person. But some of my friends are funeral aficionados: Some people seem to major in funerals the way you might major in say, political science, showing up regularly, keeping an eye out for notices and taking notes. These folks would test well on the “final” final, if you know what I mean.
That’s not me. I don’t want a funeral or a memorial service. When I told my husband this, his first response was to make sure I announced my wish to everyone I’ve ever met. “I’ll get blamed for not giving you a big party or maybe a barbecue, and that’ll be the last thing I need,” Michael said. He might be right, so here’s my declaration: If we’re going to celebrate life, let’s do it now. I don’t want to wait until after I can’t be there for the pictures.
Of course, I come from families just poor enough to have photographs of the ancient dead: Both the Italian side and the Quebecois side took black-and-white photos of the prettily deceased, peaceful in their best clothes, surrounded by satin (or a facsimile), with the tops of the coffins propped open like the hoods of cars. You had to make sure everybody could get a good last look at what was inside.
On the Italian side, there was always drama. Uncles as well as aunts flung themselves onto the coffins and, a few hours later, attempted to fling themselves into open graves crying, “Take me with you!” They meant what they said. It was ritualistic but not contrived. Those funerals served a purpose.
But times have changes. Funerals are now like baby showers: Nobody really wants to go, and it would be far kinder for everyone involved simply to send money. Seriously, just tell us how much we have to pay not to have to show up. What’s the cost of turning down an invitation? I have my checkbook right here.
Even before there were registries for baby showers, weren’t there, essentially, gift registries for death? Isn’t the whole “in lieu of flowers” business a way to direct money where the family wants it rather than where the giver wants to give? “In lieu of flowers” has the same premise as a registry at Bed, Bath & Beyond, only without the “bed” and “bath” parts. You’re basically directed to provide a serving platter to The Beyond.
I sincerely hope that, in the afterlife, hors d’oeuvres will be plentiful and served on that platter. But I also hope we will honor those we love while we - and they - are alive and kicking.
Don’t wait for better time or the next A train before you say what needs saying; you never know what’s on the schedule.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books.