A Death in X Parts: Part Two – VERTICAL

Note: If you’re not comfortable reading or talking about the realities of death, skip this post. I’m not comfortable talking about it. But I have to. And we need to. If you missed the first part of this story, you can read it here.

I‘m doing pretty decent today.

I’m a walking yard sale of emotions.

I want to hide in a blanket fort on my sofa and eat take-out Thai for the rest of my life.

I went to the gym today for the first time in two months.

There is no “blue dot of happiness” on the map of grief that tells you YOU ARE HERE.

I’m lonely and scared. Sad and feel guilty for being excited about anything. I’m terrified to land in Houston in five days, knowing I’ll spend the next 30 in a house that has never been as empty and void as I will inevitably find it.

All of these things are true and it makes me sound like a veritable candidate for a Gotham-style loony bin. But grief isn’t polite and it doesn’t ask your permission to show up and it’s the most mercurial motherfucker I’ve ever met in my life.

And I have known some motherfuckers.

And when people ask how I’m doing, I reply, “I’m vertical.” And most people get it. So I’m vertical enough today to tell you Part Two of this story that will number parts unknown:

The first trip to the funeral home. I hope you’re ready. Because I wasn’t.

Or rather, I thought I was.

Mom had given us an inadvertent gift: she died somewhere between Thursday night and Friday morning. As she was found on Friday evening, that meant the weekend. And the only people in the City of Houston that work weekends when it came to my mother’s death were the medical examiner’s office and the funeral home. This meant my brother, sister, and I literally had nothing to do all weekend.

Which isn’t to say we did nothing. But the things we did were insane and at an insane pace. Sorting/tossing/assessing. A nonstop triage mission that involved ZERO nurses. Digital excavation, figuring out passwords and accounts. Debts owed and monthly bills. Creating piles. And more piles. (gasp) And moving. Moving. Moving.

Moving.

Moving.

Anything to keep moving.

And come Sunday, the medical examiner’s office called my brother and said Mom was released, her autopsy complete. The funeral home would be picking her up. And that meant a trip to the funeral home on Tuesday to manage the business of The Business.

All the behind-closed-doors stuff. The hush-hush Business of Death. And hey, Mom had a pre-paid funeral and cremation plan — an announcement I remember her making at Thanksgiving one year over the dinner table, which landed somewhere between “pass the turkey” and “I’m going to die if I eat any more of these potatoes.” To her credit, it was a nice segue into a potential death-by-potato-consumption scenario that I’m pretty sure at least two of us kids attempted to wash down the aftertaste of her “death plans.”

So this should all be simple, right? She’d done the hard work and we just had to sit back. Relax. Let the funeral folks do what they do and we could mourn in peace.

Or pieces, which is what we left the funeral home on that Monday. But I’ll get there.

First, we’d been told that it could be up to two to three weeks for our mother to be cremated. Which is, I don’t have to tell you, some bullshit news to hear when you’re thinking about your mother being placed in an industrial oven, blasted with natural gas, and reduced to glowing red bone fragments that will be deposited into a nifty device called a Cremulator (click the link — I did the work for you) so she can be reduced even further to the “ashes” we’ve commonly accepted as our loved one’s mortal remains.

Needless to say, I had questions about this two to three weeks thing. And I wasn’t shy about asking them.

And we didn’t want mom embalmed. She’d had enough pills popped in her years for us to want her to be devoid of needless additional chemicals. And over the phone, a woman named Zelma told my brother this wouldn’t be a problem. We’d hash out the details on Monday afternoon.

Which was also the day I’d have to perform the second I.D. on our mother’s body.

I’d be seeing Mom nearly five days after she moved on to her Next — and I didn’t know what that would look like or if I was ready to see it. But my brother was in Houston and got the arrow to the heart from I.D.ing Mom as she was removed from her home. So stepping up and saying, “Yes. I’ll do the I.D.” seemed the least I could do in a time where I felt that I could do nothing of value and nothing could help the way I was feeling.

So all day Sunday and all morning on Monday, I worked up whatever the hell it is you work up so I could…do this. See the shell that used to be my mother and sign whatever form the State of Texas required to make sure that Karen wasn’t Marlene or Marvin (god forbid). And I’d spun myself up to the point where I was a balloon full of false confidence, ready to burst as soon as…well, IT happened.

And what I can tell you about driving 45 minutes across town to a funeral home — or even to one that’s 15 minutes away — is that you’ll never get there. Pavement stretches for miles and just when you think it’ll be the next turn, it’s not. And it’s not any of the next three, either. But when you find it at 2:15 pm on a Monday afternoon, what you ultimately find is a parking lot so empty that your stepping from the void in your heart into one covered with pavement, and then into yet another as you push through the pneumatic glass doors into a space so quiet.

So…over-perfumed.

So…impersonal and sterile.

That you pretty much wish you’d stayed in the fucking car.

Let’s hit fast forward on this sucker, shall we?

We’re there. Brother. Sister. This ghastly sterile lobby. Zelma appears and offers us each the limpest handshake. We’re shuffled off to a conference room where she’s fretting about the large-screen TV that’s supposed to play us a presentation being on the fritz and I’m like, honey — I’m a pro with explainer videos and PowerPoints and can tell you they’re the last thing I need right now. Let’s just do this.

Zelma remained miffed with the technology.

So, we’d need to set up the I.D. viewing. They could do that on Thursday.

(Mind you, it’s Monday.)

Me: I thought we were doing the I.D. viewing today.

Zelma: That will need to be scheduled.

Me: But I thought you already picked Mom up.

Zelma: Yes, we did.

Me: Is my mother not here? (like here here — at the funeral home)

Zelma: No.

Me: Well, where is she?

Zelma: She’s at our Central Care Facility.

Me: And where the hell is that?

Zelma: It’s on (insert a numbered street in the 30s in Houston) but it’s not open to the public.

Me: So what you’re telling me is that our mother is in…cold storage?

Zelma:

Me: She’s, literally, “chilling out”?

Zelma: We don’t have refrigeration at this facility.

For fuck’s sake.

So let’s just say that all that working myself up I’d done to be ready to I.D. my mother, well that balloon of false hope got pricked by a shitty pin named Zelma and the discovery that my mother was now a Momsicle in an industrial walk-in refrigerator somewhere.

That’s cool. <sarcasm>

So let’s talk about her final arrangements.

My brother, sister, and I had decided no viewing, no embalming. Just the casket she’d specified, the three urns she ordered, and the cremation and we’d be having a casual memorial service where mom wasn’t physically present — a time where people could share stories and laugh and look at pictures we’d chosen and the American flag she’d earned for her service in the U.S. Air Force.

And here’s where Zelma informed us — of course. They didn’t have to embalm her or do the viewing. But that would change her funeral contract by a value of over 10% — which meant that the contract would have to be re-written and pricing would revert to today’s pricing.

Which meant that the $7000+ my mother had paid in 2001 or something for her complete funeral — including transport, a viewing, a service, her casket, cremation, the three urns she’d selected, and the hearse to and from the cemetery (which we no longer needed because our mother decided she didn’t want a permanent memorial) — could be spent on just a direct cremation.

The cost for Direct Cremation? Over $6000 itself.

Are. You fucking. Kidding me?

Turns out Zelma was not. I doubt Zelma’s the type that kids about anything.

We wanted the funeral home to do LESS than our mother had paid for and this meant, by law, the funeral home could charge us more.

When I asked her to leave the room with as much humanity I could muster, she did. But then she popped back in about five minutes later with a printout from the State of Texas website — one for each of us — showing the statute that allowed the highway robbery currently in progress.

And every idea flew about that sickly beige conference room. Take her elsewhere. Fuck these people. If we take her elsewhere, mom loses all $7000 and we’re going to have to pay for her to be cremated and her service somewhere else. And you know they’re going to stick us with some “transport” or “storage” fee and I’m not ready to vomit over that. Are we? Can we stand this here? I can’t bear for her to be embalmed. It’s not what she wanted! But she did, it’s right there in black and white. Jesus. I can’t put another chemical in her body. What do you want? What do you want? What do WE want? 

And in the end, we were left with plenty of choices. But at the same time, no choice.

We removed the hearse and the “lead vehicle” from the contract, which together added up to just under the $700 mark. And our mother would be embalmed. Prepped for a viewing. And we would do the I.D. viewing privately with our family and our aunt (mom’s sister) on Thursday evening at 8 pm.

Contracts were passed around for examination. Questions. Signature. Death certificates were ordered (because we’ll get to these — and you need a fair number of them it turns out).

And as my brother and Zelma left the room, my sister and I looked at the bowl of meltaway mints with “Dignity Memorial” stamped on each wrapper (never miss a chance to brand death, y’all — even the water bottles were branded).

We looked at each other.

And we both proceeded to shovel a hefty number of mints into our purses because goddammit, we were going to get mom’s $7000 worth. I took two mini bottles of water and shoved them in my bag to boot. I wasn’t eating or drinking anything but that’s beside the point.

And we left the funeral home and headed out in Houston rush hour traffic — having spent two and half hours wrestling with the business of death when all we wanted was less.

The only “less” we left with was less solace than when had when we arrived. And seeing our mother one last time still loomed in the distance: three days away. And I wondered how I would feel when I saw the body that had failed my mother laid in an unnatural pose, “resting,” surrounded by dark-stained wood with a cream satin lining.

And I wondered if I would cry harder than I was crying in that conference room at the funeral home when they told me my mother’s body was warehoused and her final disposition was still weeks away.

And the irony of it all?

My mother spent her career as a senior systems analyst in the debt collection industry with various companies. One of the companies she worked for? SCI. Service Corporation International. The single largest end-of-life services provider in the world. She programmed the software for the autodialers in their collection offices that called people who had defaulted on payments for their…

prepaid funeral contracts.

And it would appear that our mother — when it came to her end-of-life plans — opted for the devil she knew.

Which will likely haunt us for the rest of our lives.

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