I didn’t know when or how my mother-in-law, Bubbie, was going to die, but I knew one thing for sure: she wanted to be buried in a pink sweatsuit and slip-on sneakers. “Sneakers?” I asked. “Absolutely,” she said. “I’m not wearing pantyhose for eternity.”
The Conversation Project was started to encourage people to have honest discussions with loved ones about how they want to spend their last days and, by extension, what they want for their funeral. According to Ellen Goodman, one of the founders of the Conversation Project, the difference between a good death and a difficult death is whether the dying person has shared his or her wishes. By all measures, Bubbie had a good death. She had an advance directive that outlined her wishes regarding medical care, she had described what she wanted for her funeral, and she died in her sleep, at 94, with an unfinished crossword puzzle on her lap.
Articles about having “the conversation” all stress how difficult it is to initiate discussion on this topic. What they fail to touch on is how satisfying it can be for the older adult. According to author David Solie, the secret mission of aging adults is legacy and control, and so it was with Bubbie. Bubbie lived in an assisted living residence. She depended on others to clean her room, prepare her food, take her on errands. She used a walker and oxygen. Like many older adults for whom losses accumulate, independence and control were among her highest priorities. And that is why Bubbie loved the idea of defining her end of life wishes.
She had little to say about her advance directive; it was prepared quickly and without fanfare or drama. But she had a lot to say about her funeral.
As I had coffee with Bubbie one day, I described how I had been at a meeting where a funeral director talked about how personalized funerals have become…how people can define exactly what they want their funeral to be like. “Would you like to do that?” I asked. “Absolutely,” said Bubbie, “It’s my funeral; I want to be in control.”
And so we began. I learned that Bubbie did not want hymns; she wanted Stardust Memories, which had been her and husband Herm’s favorite song. She did not want to be buried with any jewelry except her wedding ring. “Dead is dead; let someone else use it.”
I asked if she wanted to be buried with any books —Bubbie loved to read. She thought about this for a few minutes and decided against it. “Perhaps a crossword puzzle and a pen,” she said. “I don’t plan to erase.” Clearly, she was having fun.
For the funeral meal, she wanted nothing low-salt. “I’ve had to watch salt for the past 30 years. No Alpine Lace at my funeral.” She declined fancy dresses; she would be buried in her pink sweatsuit and sneakers…which led to her iconic pantyhose statement.
Then we got to the subject of caskets. Bubbie wanted the least expensive that could be found. “In fact,” she said, “I am pretty short. Do you think I could fit in one of your wardrobe cartons? I would be dust-to-dust pretty fast in cardboard; it would be very green.”
During this entire conversation and afterward, Bubbie was, if not glad to have had “the conversation,” at least satisfied that it had occurred, content that she had been consulted and that her opinion mattered. And so it was, when Bubbie died several years later, that there were no questions about what she wanted. It was her funeral; she had it her way.
For resources on initiating end of life discussions with loved ones, go to www.theconversationproject.org.
For information on how to plan and personalize your own funeral, visit www.mywonderfullife.com.
To learn more about the Secret Mission of Aging Parents Series, go to David Solie’s Second Half of Life blog www.davidsolie.com/blog/