Funerals and Flowers

Every morning my dog and I walk through my backyard, across the neighbor’s yard, into the church parking lot, and then through the cemetery, to get to a quiet development where we encounter very few vehicles or people in the stillness of the early morning. He needs the walk. I need it. It’s peaceful. And then my mother died.

Since moving here in February, I became accustomed to walking past my grandparents’ graves. In fact, I learned to find some comfort in it. Now, walking past my mother’s grave every day has become a grief exercise. Grief is a day-to-day thing. Some days are better than others. Some are not. I was there when she died, just like I was there every day for a month when she was sick, in the hospital then hospice, and every week for the two years she was in nursing care. When I was a hospice volunteer, the nurses taught me that the only way over grief is through it. No shortcuts. Still, watching the flowers die on the casket spray that stayed on her grave has been so very sad, as is her absence. The permanence of death still stops me in my tracks.

I am not always great at sending sympathy cards, and I always wondered if it mattered. It does. At least it has helped me and my family. The flowers were so much the better.

Researching funeral flowers was not easy. I had to resort to Wikipedia. Originally, flowers were used to provide a pleasant fragrance to distract from the pre-embalming odor of the deceased. After that, flowers were sent by those who were unable to attend services. Now, in most obituaries, we have the regrettable “in lieu of flowers” phrase to send money to some charity. I am a nonprofit fundraiser and enthusiastic about it, but some occasions need flowers. My mother loved flowers. We encouraged them and the family bought extras. They made the funeral less miserable. I’m not sure if there’s a rational reason; I just know I felt better seeing them.

After the funeral we each took flowers home. It’s been two weeks and the last arrangement is dying. The arrangements with plants have found permanent places around my home. The casket spray wasn’t what we ordered so I robbed some lilies and roses from another arrangement just before the funeral started. One of the lily stems had buds that didn’t open until days after the funeral. I know it is probably not miraculous, but watching new buds opening while everything else was dying gave me some relief from grief. It was a reason to smile. What doesn’t make me smile is the stupid things people say.

For no reason I can explain, when my mother was in hospice, so many people had to start sharing their own dead relative story. Here is a clue: it doesn’t help. Shut. Up. Grief may be shared in some ways, but it is deeply, deeply personal. It feels like a pain no one else can possibly understand. And then came Mother’s Day. Here’s another clue: if someone’s mother died a few weeks ago, maybe don’t run your mouth about spending all day with your mother on Mother’s Day.

One of the best of the stupidest comments was: “she’s in a better place.” Well, what a relief she has escaped from her loving family. The thing is, when she was lingering and in very bad shape, and when she and I were alone, I did tell her that she could just let go and fall asleep and she would be in a peaceful place. I do believe she has crossed-over to a different reality, and a good one. But I don’t want some stranger with a juvenile religion spewing that crap to me when I am standing next to my mother’s coffin. I did tell that insensitive idiot that “I don’t see it that way.”  I said that because I wanted to fire off something jarring that would make him think before he speaks at the next funeral. I doubt he heard me. He didn’t strike me as much of a listener. Death does bring-out the religion in people, doesn’t it? Even with atheists and agnostics, death and funerals give one pause in reflecting on one’s perspective on whether anything comes next.

My parents have both always been excessively religious. The church we were raised in started fundamental Christian then de-evolved to evangelical. It always leaned to Biblical literalism; now it is a hard and fast dogma. There is no room for social justice or even compassion for those who suffer. There is only room for talking and judging. I love words, but the evangelicals use words and the Bible like weapons. I delivered my mother’s eulogy at my father’s request. It contained much more god-speak than what I like, but I was trying to fairly reflect who my mother was. I have been to at least three other funerals in this church where the clergy said, “[the deceased] accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” In two of these cases I know it was pure bullshit. Liar, liar pants on fire. Situation ethics. The evangelicals can’t survive without it.

My mother and I weren’t close. I wasn’t her favorite, but I think I understood her. I did love her. Especially at the end, I worked hard to see her in the best possible light. I was not going to let some self-serving preacher man (of course it was a male) redefine my mother or propagandize with his own theology. I have been to more than one funeral that tried to exploit the emotional vulnerability of the situation for religious recruitment.

The thing about my parents’ evangelical church, is that when my mother went into “skilled nursing” apart from the apartment she and my father previously shared, she struggled with depression. She had had difficulty throughout her life, but geriatric depression is the worst because you can’t say it will get better. It won’t. It didn’t. Our family was devout, but she yearned for other company. Yet for those two years, she had very few visits from either church people nor from the relatives and other self-described “missionaries” to whom she sent extraordinary amounts of money over the years. By way of context, she sent many thousands more than was ever contributed to my college education (largely paid with student loans). My parents believed in a literal “tithe” of 10 percent of their net income. While they were physically able, they were in church at least three times a week. Now shouldn’t all that dedication and tithing have earned them a little better treatment? I certainly think so.

This is the problem with a religion of talking instead of doing. The only thing they find remotely sacred is their own words. I heard an evangelical co-worker say of the Notre Dame fire, “Who cares? No one died.” There is no appreciation for history, architecture, culture, art, or aesthetics. People in need are at fault themselves for not having enough faith – or worse, suffering is the consequence of sin. The only thing that matters is their own words and judgement of others less pious than themselves, which includes pretty much everyone who is not going to their own church, and some of those are suspect.

If you are struggling and plagued with the existential conundrums of a limiting religion of your own or those in your life, then it’s time to read an old classic: When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. It’s written by a very wise Rabbi and even my Old School non-Jewish father has found comfort in this book.

Although the church I was raised in exemplified many of the reasons people reject organized religion, my own parents were more the doing type than the talking type. And for this I give them both great credit. To the rest of their not-so-loyal congregants, I will say, if your prayer chain doesn’t inspire you to get off your knees and help someone, then it’s just gossip. In lieu of prayers, send flowers. -J.B.

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Comments

  • Deb Stoltzfus  On May 27, 2019 at 6:24 am

    Jacqui, What a beautiful piece. It has touched my soul. I loved seeing your mom at GSV and always makes a point of talking to her even though most times she didn’t remember me. This has brought me much peace from how I felt after my mom passed in Jan 2018. I, too, was not good at sending Sympathy cards or flowers for funerals since my mom died I try to do better, I know even the ones that came much later meant so much. I also had trouble with the comments people make – I always hate the ‘how are you doing’ or hearing my husband say ‘she’s doing better’. I wanted to scream – how do you think a person is doing after loosing someone- grief is a personal thing – some people even if they go through it will still never understand.
    So thank you for this piece, I’m going to save it and read it from time to time. Becausing missing someone never goes away – life just goes on around it. Deb

    • All Things Religious  On May 28, 2019 at 10:18 am

      Thanks for taking time to read and thank you for your well-thought-out comments. I wish you the best with your own grief, because you are right, it never really goes away, does it? -J.B.

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