At Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral, Glenn Bergenfield, a close family friend who presented a eulogy, said that in her final days, as he looked around the Edwards household for any guidance she had regarding funeral arrangements, he found none. Since she was such a detailed planner, he thought surely she would have left copious notes. Bergenfield said, “As the week has worn on I have begun to think she saw the sad and beautiful metaphor: We must go on ourselves.”
Edwards did make plans for her children’s Christmas, but not her own funeral. At least the family knew she wanted to be buried next to her son Wade and have the funeral in the same Methodist church where his funeral was held. Some people don’t even express that extent of their plans or wishes.
The funerals of U.S. presidents are now fully pre-planned by the Naval District of Washington, D.C., but it wasn’t always that way.
Jessica Mitford, author of the landmark book, The American Way of Death, published in 1963, told the story of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unheeded last wishes. Roosevelt had written down instructions, but kept the document in his private safe and apparently did not tell Eleanor.
Roosevelt wanted a simple, dark wood casket; no embalming; no hermetically sealed coffin; no grave lining; transportation by gun carriage, not by hearse; and no lying in state anywhere. The document was discovered a few days after his burial. Unfortunately, the only instruction followed was that he did not lie in state.
While conducting research for my new book, A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die, my husband and I met with a mortuary to preplan funeral arrangements for my father-in-law, Norman. We were surprised at how much information was needed that we did not have on hand.
We were glad to have the luxury of time and Norm’s availability to provide more details, which he did gladly. We were also dismayed by my mother-in-law Myra’s “see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil” denial. She refused to discuss the topic.
That was three years before Norm actually died. After his death, at the end of an exhausting seven weeks of hospitalization, finalizing the funeral arrangements was quick and relatively easy. After the arrangement meeting, Myra told me, “I really didn’t like it back when you were pre-planning, but now, when we needed it, I’m glad it was done.”
Here’s a thought to consider. With a wedding, you have weeks, months, even years to plan, purchase, and implement all the aspects: clergy, location, communications to family and friends, flowers, clothing, music, food, transportation, and so on. With a funeral, you have only an average of three to five days to make similar arrangements, while also dealing with the emotional impact of the loss of a loved one.
Planning a funeral right after a family member dies is probably the last thing you want to do. Hence, funeral directors are the equivalent of wedding planners for the last step in the life cycle, handling all those details for you. You still need to have basic facts about the deceased to process death certificates, and it would be comforting to know you are handling the disposal of the body the way that person would have wanted.
As columnist Ellen Goodman commented, “How many families actually have ‘the talk,’ something as dreaded as ‘the talk’ about sex? How many tiptoe around the questions that surround death, parents not wanting to upset children, children not wanting to upset parents? As if we were not in it together.”
We are all in this together, and we will all be making an exit at some time. Elizabeth Edwards helped her family and society at large start thinking about how to make a graceful exit. Today is a good day to have a conversation about what a graceful exit and a good goodbye would mean to you.