Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Dearly Departed

This morning I conducted a memorial service for a woman I never met. It was one of those calls out of the blue. Last Sunday I got home from church before Berry’s Dad, so I was the one to retrieve messages off the phone machine. Because we share one position in ministry, it’s a challenge sometimes to balance out who does what. Our understanding is that whoever answers the phone or gets the message takes up the task. Tag, you’re it!

So I got the message from the funeral director that a woman had died in a nursing home. Her daughter, who was from out of town, said that she had been a Unitarian Universalist, so the funeral director looked in the Yellow Pages for a UU minister and there we were. I could hardly say no.

When a person dies at 92, they are unlikely to have throngs of friends left. Furthermore, her husband and her son had already died, leaving just the woman and her daughter as the last family members. Not even any aunts, uncles or cousins. When I met with the daughter yesterday, she told me that her marriage was ending, and I ached for her. How many important losses at a time can one person sustain?

The location for the service was creepy: a typical funeral home, all hushed carpets and gas log fireplaces and huge displays of flowers. While I was waiting for the service to begin, I took a cruise through the Coffin Room (they probably have another name for it) to check out the goods. The least expensive was a $395 wooden box to be cremated in. But of course, you could spend a lot more on a cremation coffin — this gives new meaning to the term “money to burn.” The “permanent” coffins ranged in price from around $2,000 for a tacky model to well over $6,000 for a bronze number with all sorts of cushioning and embroidery. What are these people thinking? Dead is dead — it’s too late for cushions. When I die, just put me in the wooden box (or better yet, a muslin bag) and send me into the flames. Ashes to ashes.

I think I chose the wrong metaphor for the service. Several times I suggested that as long as there were people to remember her, M.G. would never die. But with only one daughter in her fifties and about twenty friends in the neighborhood of the eighties, that remembrance isn’t going to last long. I need to come up with better metaphor for the next time.

The woman was born the same year as my mother — 1914. She was a stay-at-home mother, did a lot of volunteer work, played bridge, kept a lovely home and a gorgeous garden. Clearly cut from the same cloth as my mother; I felt that I understood her life even though we had never met. I think I would have liked her. Some of the photos that her daughter had on display showed that certain sparkle of the eye.

There was a guest there who had been to another memorial service I conducted several years ago, that one for a woman who was a member of my congregation, whom I knew well and loved. Even though there is more sadness in the death of a loved one than a stranger, I prefer to conduct services for the former. I can draw upon my own memories of the person, that look in the eye, that tone of voice, all the times I have been with her. She died with a copy of the latest biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mind on Fire, clutched to her chest, as though to say “See, I am an intellectual!” I don’t think she managed to read a word of it, but just having the book in her possession was important to her.

On the phone, the funeral director told me he had quoted a fee of $150 for this service. I told him that my minimum was $250. For $150 you get someone in a robe or a clerical collar who plugs a name into a boilerplate service and offers little comfort beyond “going home to Jesus.” I spent probably seven hours on this service, between telephone calls, a meeting with the daughter, looking for suitable readings, writing the ceremony from scratch, and spending an hour there this morning. At $35 an hour, that’s a bargain.

I know this sounds crass. But this is what we do to keep a roof over our family’s heads and food on the table. (Or in my case, a new winter coat.) How do you put a price on comfort and solace? What is my kindness and sympathy worth? This is time taken from my personal life, not from the ministry my church already pays me for. I think I’m worth $35 an hour. Or more.