My grandmother recently died. Her death was expected; she resided in a nursing home for the last year of her life, and received hospice care for many months before her passing. I prepared my kids, ages 6 and 10, by talking to them about the impending death of their great-grandma, emphasizing her advanced age and progressively weak heart. Her body can’t take much more, I told them. While my grandma was still able to recognize and enjoy visitors, I took my son and daughter to the nursing home. We helped her eat, and gave her sips of water. My children took turns holding her hand and yelling into her left ear, because she refused to use her hearing aid. She was plainly failing, and I wanted my kids to experience this, to see death as natural and inevitable, not scary and disconnected from the rest of life. When she died, I was driving from New York to Michigan, the kids in the back seat. We missed her last moments.
My grandmother refused to have a funeral. Her wish was to be cremated, no ceremony, no fuss. It was decided that a memorial party would be held, one last family picnic at grandma’s house. So six weeks later we all gathered to eat, and look at pictures and cry. We roamed the house that many of us had lived in at one time or another. Just like countless holiday dinners, I sat on the floor in my grandma’s living room with a plate of food on my lap, because all the seats were taken by my elders. Her books were still there, the same framed photos and the sofa (davenport, grandma would call it) that she used for at least thirty years. Her folded plastic shopping bags were tucked away, the Scrabble dictionary was still on the shelf. Her seven children, their kids and many great-grandchildren filled the house. One young girl led her cousins upstairs and stood in the doorway of a small bedroom, “This was my Dad”s room,” she said with gravity. Eleven children were raised in that house, by my grandma. More of us lived there temporarily, or felt it to be a second home, at times safer than our own home.
My son explored the house, too. He brought a bible to my husband, asking if it belonged to Grandma.
“Should we put it with her?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” my husband said.
“When we put her in the boat,” my son said.
“No one is going in a boat,” assured my husband.
“I thought we were going to put grandma in a boat with her stuff and light it all on fire,” my son said.
I could only laugh at the idea of having a Viking funeral for my grandmother. I had failed to explain some basic facts about death, and my son filled in his knowledge gaps with lore from Norse mythology and ancient history. I worried, briefly, that we might be reading the wrong types of books. Then it came to me, slowly, that a funeral pyre might be a fine end to a life well lived. It was so hard to leave that party, almost impossible to part for the last time. The place will have to be sold; the furniture and knick-knacks can be distributed among relatives, but putting Grandma’s bust of Mozart in my living room does not re-create the environment that made me fell safe and loved during my most tumultuous years. Scattering the accumulated objects of one person’s life is a very unsatisfying way of holding on. What we need is to let go, to say our final good-bye.
A funeral pyre is the very definition of finality. The intensity of a huge flaming boat might allay the pain. It might prove to be cathartic, making it possible to leave the party.