Super G & her Girls 2005
Welcome to Hell.
I spent the last week dealing with the business of dying.
My grandmother died after a short, unexplainable illness and I was called away from a work conference to help deal with the aftermath.
If I sound a little bitter, I am. I really wanted to attend the conference as I missed it last year and I was really looking forward to spending some quality time with the friends with whom I stay. Still, we cannot predict what life will dish out and my family needed me.
My mom called me right as the keynote was starting. Not realizing what was happening, I texted her back saying that I would call when the keynote was over. She didn’t text back to tell me how serious things were, so I had no idea Grama was at the end. I had a bad feeling throughgout the keynote, though. She and my sister called our friends and he came looking for me at the conference. Finally, he and I connected and talked about what was going on. Should I go? Should I stay? I finally decided to go, so we caravaned back to his house where I packed up my stuff, called work, called DH, cried a little and eventually left.
I left from Monterey at about noon on Monday. I had to keep stopping because the emotions were overwhelming me. I promised DH I would try to drive if I was crying. I stopped at my aunt’s house in San Luis Obispo and had some soup and talked with her. She is not close to the family, so she is a little removed from the raw emotions. I was still in a turmoil about going down and she said that she would call and tell them I wasn’t coming, if I wanted.
I was in a turmoil because I wasn’t sure that it was really the end. The last I heard, Grama was at home recovering from her fall. I didn’t know they had rushed her to the hospital on Sunday night. Some members of my family can be very dramatic and over the top. I ended up continuing on.
When I got to Fillmore, I had to stop to use the restroom and get some coffee. My mom called as I was leaving Starbuck’s and told me to head to the house instead of the hospital; that Grama had died. I stopped and rented a hotel room, then I went to the house and everyone was there. Mom and Lil Sissy were on the phone calling people with the news.
The next day, I went to the house and started writing letters to her credit cards to cancel them. I cleared out old bills and marked them for shredding. I called the attorney. I called her investment adviser. I called my DH and consoled people.
My mom looked terrible. She had that taut look around her cheeks and eyes. I had never seen her like that. All I wanted to do was make it all better when I saw her.
Emotions were very high. It is so draining when people are just thinking about themselves and not thinking about the situation.
Tuesday was the day the drama started. We went to the mortuary to arrange to get her ready to be buried. This is an expensive prospect. It was $1700 to walk in the door and talk to the funeral director to make the plans. We had to decide on open or closed casket, what casket to buy ($750-$10,000), whether she would be made up (hair and make up $200), what she would wear (dressing $700 excluding clothes), embalming ($1700), refrigeration ($97/day if you don’t get your loved one embalmed), etc etc. There was a lot of other stuff, like holy cards, remembrance book. Each piece added to the bottom-line. Dying is not a cheap proposition. It also was hard to make decisions while considering cost. I felt like a cheapskate. I felt like I was shortchanging her by making decisions and thinking about how much each decision cost. Mom and Lil Sissy were ont he same page in terms of the decisions, so, at least, I wasn’t making them alone. There is a lot of up-selling that goes on in the Business of Dying.
Lil Sissy ended up making cards – they weren’t holy cards, but they had a nice photo of Grama on the front with the details of her life and death on them. We bought a bright and cheerful guest book at Hallmark -one we knew she would like that didn’t cost $150. Nobody commented on not having holy cards, or a more grim or religious remembrance book.
All this time emotions were running really high and that was really exhausting for me.
Next stop was the cemetery. This was supposed to be an easy stop because she told us everything was taken care of. It was a nightmare.
Grama inherited a plot from her dad and was planning to be buried with her step-mother. Her second husband was buried with his first wife. Grama’s dad is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, as he remarried and that is where his last wife was buried. The cemetery “counselors” told us that she couldn’t be buried with her step-mother because they weren’t blood relatives.
They told us to look at the contract, which we did and nowhere did it say that Grama had to be a blood relative to be buried in the plot. The other thing was that the contract said “family” not blood relatives, though the counselors insisted that ‘blood relative’ was in the contract. They were adamant. They said they would be happy to refund our money or apply it to another plot. Remember what I said about up-selling? If this were true, they really had us between a rock and a hard place.
I had had enough of these people. Clearly, death is an everyday occurrence to them and they have forgotten the pain and suffering a loved one’s death causes. They were immune to our pain. Their words of condolence were just meaningless sounds coming out of their mouth.
I know from working in a law firm that the legal definition of ‘family’, which, I’d like to remind you, was what it said on the contract, is not the same as the legal definition of ‘blood relative’. They wouldn’t budge. Their manager wouldn’t talk to us so we left.
I think someone in the cemetery office heard something that sounded good and started saying it. I am sure they got some extra sales out of that blood relative line. I thought it must be something like the game of telephone.
As soon as we got in the car, I called a badass litigator I know and left a message. We also called Grama’s lawyer who we were able to speak with and who was so angry about the situation that she got on the job of getting Grama in that plot right away.
You don’t have time to shop around for the best deal when your loved one dies. You don’t have time to negotiate prices or go to Costco and buy a casket. Your loved one has to be somewhere, and wherever s/he is waiting for the final arrangements costs you money.
I spent the evening emailing back and forth with the attorney, scanning contract and providing a family tree for her. In between, I spent a lot of time trying to stem the tide of anger erupting from the emotional volcanoes around me. More exhaustion.
The next day I had an appointment to see the Bereavement Team at the church to arrange the funeral. Mom had scheduled it, but I felt like I should go and help her since she was in such a fragile state. I got ready and as I was about to leave someone from the Archdiocesan Patron Services department called me back. He got more information from me and said he would call and talk to the cemetery. He didn’t promise anything and had that bland, “I am clearly talking to a crazy person” tone of voice.
I stopped at Peet’s to get some tea. The cemetery called while I was in the car. The woman tried to explain the situation, which turned out to be that they were afraid Great Grama’s (the relative in the bottom part of the grave) next of kin would come and be angry that the cemetery had opened the grave and put someone else in there. Spare me. This is not what her staff said and what she was saying was very different than not being able to put someone in a grave that is not a blood relative. I told her she would be getting a call from my lawyer and hung up. Then I called the attorney. I was done with all these people and, while, in general, I don’t threaten to have a lawyer interveneeveryday, I did that this time. I just couldn’t deal with the situation anymore. Grama’s lawyer was glad to call them. The next call I got was from the cemetery saying that everything was fine, please come and sign the papers to bury her.
They said that I needed to be there by noon to get Grama buried the next day and I reminded them that if their incompetence had not caused all of these problems, everything would have been done the previous day. I said I would come as soon as I was done at the church and if that was by noon, great. If not, Grama would be buried on Thursday if I had to drive the bulldozer myself.
I don’t understand why it takes hours of my time, a multitude of angry communications, a family tree and lawyer’s phone call for them to do what they were contractually obligated to do in the first place? The staff is poorly trained and, perhaps, poorly supervised. It seems that they are poorly organized when they do the initial selling. It also seems like they must be more concerned about getting people’s money than actually putting them in the grave.
The Bereavement Team at the church was the only bright spot in this whole process. They were clear, well organized and there was no problem. They offered appropriate guidance, acknowledged that this was a difficult time and were very helpful. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
We headed over to a cemetery, girding ourselves for another fight. It wasn’t. Everything was ready. Mom and I had to sign a couple of things and we were done. They took us over to the grave and we saw the original marker for the first time. We looked at some other markers to get an idea of how to change it because of Grama’s name replacing her dad’s. The guy who took out to the grave was relentlessly cheerful. Clearly he enjoyed his job.
By Wednesday midafternoon, we were done with all of the organizational details. Thank heaven. We went out to a mediocre lunch and then reconvened at Super G’s house. I continued to sort old bills and papers and write letters to people who needed to know Grama had died.
Thursday morning, I got up early and went to the Van Nuys Flyaway terminal to pick up the boys. They had flown down that morning for the funeral. By 8:30 or so we were back on the road to Grama’s house. When we got there, they ate some breakfast and then we headed over to the church. Mom had put together some photos to display at the mass and reception.
At about 10am, we all headed over to the church. We set up the table with the remembrance book and the photos, arranged some flowers. We stood around a bit waiting for things to get started. Eventually the priest and the Bereavement Team got the readers and the cousins, who were bringing up the gifts, oriented. I talked with the mortuary staff who arrived with Grama. A bit later we got the pallbearers organized and started greeting people.
People came and wanted to hug us or be hugged. I had been pretty stoic until this time, but I started to break down. At the end of the mass when we were processing out, I broke down when my step-dad broke down. I couldn’t be strong any longer. Thank heaven for mom’s cousin. She just held me and didn’t let go or encourage me to stop. If I couldn’t have my own mom, I would love to have her as a mom.
There was a reception in the church hall. The church ladies decorated, made coffee and lemonade, baked and cleaned up. It was wonderful. That church has a wonderful community.
After the reception, we went to the cemetery and buried Grama. We had a family only internment. We didn’t want another big hoo-ha. The burial part of the service was short. My mom was angry that the priest kept his portable holy water in plastic piping. I thought it was tacky.
And then it was all over. I said good-bye to my boys and my friend took them back to the airport. Everyone else scattered for home. Several of us went back to Grama’s and sat around chatting about her life and other details.
Friday, I finished up paperwork. Mom and I went with two of her cousins to find Grandpa George’s grave at Hollywood Forever. They were setting up for their Dia de los Muertos celebration so the place was a zoo. We found him and were glad he is no longer lost. We also saw a memorial to Toto, Nelson Eddy’s grave, Jayne Mansfield’s grave, Johnny Ramone’s mausoleum and the crypt where Marion Davies rests. It is actually quite a beautiful cemetery and, though unplanned, we took a little time to walk around the graves and say some of the names as a small prayer to those resting there. There were a number of people there looking for celebrity graves. I thought that was a bit odd, but to each his own.
Saturday I packed up and checked out of the hotel and took one last trip over to Grama’s. Mom and I wrote thank you notes and then I drove home. I didn’t really feel like stopping anywhere, so I only stopped when I needed to. I didn’t visit with anyone or shop for fabric. Now I am home and working on getting my life back to normal.
Everyone is going to die. I am sorry if you think that is an indelicate statement, but it is true. If you want to go through what we did, don’t do anything. Close this post and go ride your bike or sew or mow the lawn. There are a lot more options if you plan ahead. If you want to avoid the nightmare and allow your family to grieve peacefully and completely, here is what you need to do:
- Think about what you want to happen after you die. Take notes on those thoughts. Perhaps create a file on your computer that you can add to as things occur to you.
- Talk with your loved ones about what you want done when you die.
- Go to the mortuary and start making plans and paying for those plans. There is a company that will bill you by the month and put the fees in an account so they are ready for your use when the time comes.
- Make all the mortuary related decisions-hair, make-up, embalming.
- If you will be buried in a cemetery, go to the cemetery where you want to be buried and buy a plot. Get together with your family and go in together. The afterlife will be more fun, if you have people you care about around you. if you want to be buried at sea, get in touch your preferred company and make those arrangements.
- If you want to buy a casket at Costco, go figure out how that is done, where to store it, etc.
- Decide where you want the celebration, mass or service to be held.
- Do you want a viewing the night before?
- Organize the service as best you can. What poem or readings do you want? Who do you want to be pallbearers? Do you want people to remember you by making speeches? Are there people you do not want to attend? Spell it all out.
- Contact those people and see if they have a pay-in-advance plan.
- Contact an attorney and make a will or get a Nolo Press book and do it yourself.
- Make a book, collage or poster or note the photos you want displayed at your funeral or wake.
- Write everything down including: what you want to wear, whether you want an open casket, do you want to be cremated, what mortuary and cemetery you want used, or whether you want to be scattered at sea, made into a statue, or cryogenically frozen and where you want the wake, what color you want the vault to be, who you want to do the catering. AND where the money is to pay for all of this. There are a thousand details. Start now.
- Make copies of all of your arrangements and give them to the people who will be doing the planning.
- Save the arrangements to the cloud.
- Pay for the arrangements. Your accounts might be frozen after you die. Make sure your kids don’t have to come up with the money in advance.