My mother started to price cemetery plots around the time my father began to lose his way back from the bathroom. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years prior, but it was only in the last two that he would grab votive candles off tables at restaurants, mistaking them for glasses of water. We would wrench them away before he burnt his tongue. It was then when she began contemplating where she and my father would be buried, even though she had never thought of herself as old before. That’s the reality of this kind of preplanning; it forces you to mentally pre-bury yourself next to your spouse.
Refusing to be bested by any industry that overcharges, much less one that takes advantage of the grieving, she started bargain hunting for a plot early. A few weeks after she started looking, we went out to lunch at a Japanese restaurant. She waited till the ramen soup arrived to make her an announcement.
“Corina, I bought boxes for all five of us.”
“Boxes?” I said. “What kind of boxes?”
I almost spat out a pork chunk. “What, there was a 5-for-1 sale at the local cemetery?”
“Well, I wanted your sister Angelina to come with me, because if you bought a plot by February you could get $1,000 off. But she thought it was too grim.”
“$1,000 off? What the hell is that—the Valentine’s Day special?”
“Well, that’s if your father and I were buried at the Catholic cemetery close to the house. Or we could be buried at the military cemetery in Kent. The military cemetery would be for free, because he was a Vietnam vet, but it’s so far away, and only one of you can come with us.”
“Come with you?”
“Yes, be buried with us. The V.A. cemetery isn’t as nice, but it’s free. Completely free. I want you and Angelina to come with me to see both, but she doesn’t want to discuss it.”
Usually my older sister Angelina was the family member my mother relied on most, the one who became a physician like both of our parents, the one who spoke my mother’s medical language of stethoscopes and ventilators—the one who, if it came down to it, could change my father’s diaper.
“Sure, I’ll come,” I said, though I knew contemplating funeral plans with my mother would mean considering my own as well. I mean, there were boxes already, and only one of us “could come with them,” although who wanted to go to Kent, WA, the onetime Lettuce Capitol of the World.
“To be honest, Mom, I don’t know what’s happening with me. I’m single, I don’t have any kids, I don’t know if I’m going to stay in Seattle…It’s a little hard for me to think even three months ahead. Who knows where my life is going?”
“Don’t worry, Corina.” She patted me on the arm. “At least you’ll have a box.”
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have never connected the aging of my parents with my own fears of getting older, but perhaps back then I imagined I would be more of an adult by now with a partner and kids and home of my own, instead of a junior one bedroom and bus pass.
About 10 years ago, my mother retired and bought a house just outside Seattle, about a half hour away from my older sister and me. I visited them a couple times a week, sometimes catching a ride with a colleague after work and letting myself in with the key my mother proudly presented to me after they closed on the house.
“Hey. Anyone up there? It’s me, Corina.” My voice would float up the stairs to the dining room where my parents sat. It was a funny house, three narrow floors connected by an elevator and stairs. They bought it because my father fell in love with the top floor’s views of the Puget Sound at sunset, streaks of lavender and pink painted onto the water every night and dotted with tiny white ferries and sailboats.
I heard my mother’s voice, drifting back down from upstairs. “Oh it’s you, Corina. Come join us. We’re just having dinner.”
I ran up the stairs, and before I could set my bag down, before asking for a greeting herself, my mother said, “Kiss your father hello.”
I gave my father a quick peck on the cheek, and he smiled at me sweetly, looking up from the plate of food my mother cut up for him. “Aww…hello there, beautiful daughter.”
“Hello there, beautiful father.” He chuckled at this.
When do we realize who the more resilient parent is? Before we even know what resilient means, I think. Even when I was child, the fear of my father dying early kept me up nights, but my mother’s death is something I have only begun to consider. She’s always been the kind of parent who would live forever and then haunt her children into the afterlife, coming back in specter form just to remind me to sit up straight at dinner.
In my father’s defense, he only appeared weaker next to my mother because, well, we all did. When she broke her toe ramming it into a door once, my mother just reached down, straightened the bones out herself, and went about her day. Instead of vacationing back home in the Philippines, she would plan medical missions there, lending her physician’s expertise to small mountain villages. Many of the towns lacked electricity, and she hauled IVs and medicines over from the States, packed on ice.
“When Armageddon comes,” a friend of mine said, “your mother will be the one pulling bodies out of the river.”
With my father, it was different. Certainly hardy enough when it came to his job, he could oversee the entire ICU unit by himself and drive to the hospital several times a night for emergencies, and yet his weaker constitution and gentler personality made him seem much more vulnerable. Oddly it was when he was at his kindest that I feared for him the most, as there was always something a little heartbreaking about his generosity, a guilelessness about it, as if too honest and innocent to last. It didn’t help that he always suffered from some bodily ailment or another: kidney stones, high cholesterol, arthritis, a sour stomach weakened by overeating.
When I was younger, I feared he would suffer a heart attack because heart disease ran in the family and my father was already overweight. He loved his ice cream, just like his father did. When we visited his side of the family in Yonkers, at some point my grandfather would make a not-so-secret retreat to the freezer on the second floor of the apartment, to dip into what seemed to be a magically replenishing tub of vanilla ice cream. Amazing, the pleasure my grandfather and my father took in just a simple scoop of plain vanilla—no sprinkles, no hot fudge on top, no cake or pie nestled next to it. At home my father had his own private stash in our second fridge, his shrunken down to a more reasonably sized pint of Haagen-Dazs. He would visit it around 10pm and then between the hours of 3am and 4am, as his own personal reward for a dinner of Slimfast shakes or Lean Cuisine lasagnas.
“You know it doesn’t work that way,” I said, “this losing-weight thing, if you follow it up with ice cream.”
“It’s for my heartburn,” he would reply, his eyes never leaving the bowl, his spoon scooping up every last melted puddle. When there was ice cream in front of him, my father could concentrate on nothing else.
He still consumed it that same way, scooping out the puddles that the rest of us would let the dishwasher clean off later, eating with the glee of an 8-year-old. It was a vision as charming as it was painful. He now had the mental capacity of a child; his love of ice cream was one of the few things he retained. For a man who had no problem eating anything and everything all his life, it’s surprising how difficult it is to make him eat now. This must be the smallest he’s been in decades—too small, I think. We beg him to drink Carnation shakes; we supplement them with protein powder, call them milkshakes. We tell him if he doesn’t finish his vegetables or take his pills there will be no ice cream after. Sometimes we just give him the ice cream anyway, because it’s the only thing he will eat.
My father knows that I am his daughter but can no longer remember my name. I visit on Sunday nights for dinner and head back to work on Monday, thinking too much.
I had lied to my mom about not thinking about my own funeral. I’d been planning it since I was a teenager, at least the more fashionable aspects of it, dreaming about it the way some girls imagine what they want their wedding or bachelorette party to look like. Sounds a bit macabre, but I’m a firm believer that one should never leave any major life events to chance or to others. I had been to enough bachelorette parties, weddings, and funerals to know that poor planning gets you penis rings and suck-for-a buck t-shirts, games where the bride-to-be must guess the name of her fiancé’s first dog, dry wedding receptions with the Electric Slide, honeymooners in public hot tubs, and when I start to believe there might be an afterlife, funerals where the deceased have had no say.
I don’t think you can be raised Catholic like I was and not start thinking of death early, what with the whole ashes to ashes bit, the body and blood of Christ, all those hours looking at the Son of God dying on a cross. How primed we young Catholics are to contemplate mortality from First Communion on, the flimsiness of life and the human body stressed and underlined when Sister Aquinas informs us in middle school that Christ was actually nailed to the cross at the wrist and not in the middle of the hand, as is often rendered in paintings and sculptures—for if that had been the case, the weight of his body would have ripped the nail straight through.
I couldn’t have been the only Catholic kid planning her funeral by 6th grade. I debated who would speak at the ceremony—sisters or best friends?—and what reflections they would share in this ultimate toast to dead me. Sometimes I made mental notes on headstone trends: When walking past more modern markers in cemeteries, I would notice how the polished, almost reflective facades etched with head-to-shoulder images of the deceased were reminiscent of the smooth coating of a Sweetheart candy. If I had my wish and a bigger bank account, I would swing for the rough-hewn slabs I’d seen sticking up at odd angles at Pere Lachaise in Paris, half-hidden by weeds and grass. Those were the Cadillacs of headstones. While I could never afford the original, I would settle for a shabby-chic reissue with ersatz wearing around the corners.
As soon as my mother and I returned home from lunch, I called my little sister Gabriella in New York to tell her the news.
“I’ve actually thought of how I want to be buried,” she replied.
“Oh yeah, me too.”
“No, Corina.” She sighed. “I’ve thought about how I actually want to be buried, not what I want my party to be like. Cremate me, and I don’t need no box. Just toss my ashes into the nearest body of water. Boom. Done.”
“You say that, Gabriella, but you don’t know what happens. It ain’t neat, perfect, ashy powder that flies away in the wind. There are shards. Sometimes, the wind blows. Blowback.”
“Damn, I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Who does? It’s all good until you’re cleaning Aunt Bertha out from under your fingernails.”
“Oh god. Well, maybe you can just put me in a compostable bag and drop me into the water.”
I put my hand over the receiver. “Mom,” I said, calling out across the room, “when Gabriella dies she wants to be cremated, thrown in a compostable bag, and dropped into the ocean.”
My mother glanced up briefly from her iPhone. “Like dog shit?”
When my father’s parents passed away, we buried them whole in a Catholic cemetery, one of those cinematically perfect graveyards near where they’d lived in Yonkers, New York, with sloping hills and valleys dotted by headstones crammed into every last patch of grass, clunky hearses winding their way up narrow pebbled paths, and somber men in black suits and dark shades emerging from town cars with tinted windows. During my grandfather’s burial, my sisters and I liked to pretend that the men were part of a mafia funeral instead of just another boring Italian-Catholic family from down the street like us.
That was a cemetery mostly for coffins. Cremation was forbidden until 1985 by the Catholic Church out of reverence for the body as a temple of Christ and the Holy Spirit; the ban eventually had to be lifted because of space concerns. Cremation now appears to be all the rage among environmentally concerned Catholics of the Pacific Northwest, at least if the Catholic cemetery near my parents’ home in Washington were any proof. Flatter and far emptier than my grandparents’ graveyard, it featured few of the massive, intricately etched headstones I associated with cemeteries, which were replaced instead by foot-long plaques squeezed so close together that a full human body could never fit in between—just a condensed, cremated one.
A week or two after lunch at the Japanese restaurant, my mother scheduled a meeting with the cemetery’s funeral director. Persuaded by further prodding, my older sister and I joined her.
Though I’d never met a funeral director in person before, I always pictured them as some kind of sleazy real-estate agent, preying on my sense of obligation to hawk a 24K gold super casket. The portly thirtysomething guy with thick black-rimmed glasses who greeted us at the door of the cemetery’s business office looked more like a stand-up comedian, but his voice was too gentle and unctuous for open-mike night. After a brief introduction, he drove us to the mausoleum on the far edge of the grounds, a minimalist gray building that could have doubled as a small library.
Mausoleums always seem to have doors like bank vaults, as if the souls and smells of the dearly departed might escape through anything thinner; this one was no different. Heaving the mausoleum door open with a hefty push, the director led us a few steps into the vestibule.
“This is actually a great gift your parents are giving you,” he said, his eyes shifting toward my sister and me. “So when the worst day in the world comes, you’ll know what to do.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Yes, it’s the worst day in the world, but those lines rolled off his lips a bit too easily. On the other hand, why shouldn’t he have lines he uses? His 9 to 5, at the end of the day, must be just as rote as the rest of ours.
Following the director into the mausoleum’s center room, we found ourselves facing an altar surrounded by rows of chairs, as if mass was about to begin. Two crypts off to each side held walls of metal drawers—niches, they called them—which resembled safety deposit boxes until you walked close enough to make out the names of the deceased. The director headed toward the crypt on the left, and we followed.
“Those are ours?” my mother asked, gesturing at one of the rows of niches about halfway down the wall.
“You have those four, and that one below it,” the director said, pointing to another niche on the row below the rest.
He said it so nonchalantly, that it took me a minute to realize what we were looking at: my family’s final resting place. No transition, no lead in, just boom: Here’s the wall you’re going to be stuffed into someday.
I didn’t know that my mother had already purchased space, but when you think about it, who the hell buys free-floating cremation boxes? And yet when she had first mentioned them, that was exactly what I had pictured: five cardboard cubes a little larger than shoeboxes, shrink-wrapped together like a Costco bulk-pak that we could stash in the garage until needed.
Each of the five spaces was less than a foot long, and half a foot wide. It was amazing what the body could be reduced to. There was nothing exceptional about our niches, other than that one of the five was on a row below the rest. I didn’t want to hurt my mom’s feelings, but the cemetery seriously jacked her on that one; it looked like where you stuck your estranged second cousin. Some of the other niches above and below us had been decorated with three-inch oval photos of their occupants in plastic frames, images from when they were still alive.
“These photos are grim, man,” I whispered to Angelina. “We are not doing that. Our names up there are enough; I don’t need to be staring at some fridge magnet of you.” She nodded silently.
Two feet away, my mother busied herself examining some of the niches’ short, two-line inscriptions. “Huh, not much room to write ‘Devoted, Fabulous Mother,’ eh?” she asked the director.
“No,” the director chuckled. “Not too much room, I’m afraid.” He proceeded to lead us out of the crypt, cutting short any further pondering of our mortality. I wondered if it was an unspoken rule in the funeral business: Don’t let clients gaze upon their final resting place for more than five minutes. Really, is there anything more awkward than showing people to their graves?
Back in the center hall, I noticed a few short glass-covered bookcases between the front door and the altar. “Jesus, what is that?” I said, pointing to a few urns in the bookcase. “It’s like you’re a high school trophy.” I thumbed my finger back toward the walls of metal drawers. “I’m more into this gym locker vibe, myself.”
Sigmund Freud once described gallows humor as a triumph of the pleasure principle over life’s more depressing reality; he left out what acting like a brat at the family mausoleum meant. And yet I couldn’t stop myself. I was okay with hashing out funeral contemplations on the surface: what I would do for a toast, who would be invited, but the actual purchase of post-mortem property felt like a step further than I was ready to take. I knew that my generation were getting married and having children later, if at all, and meanwhile our parents were not getting any younger. I knew that because of this, it was far more likely for someone my age to be single, childless, and already tending to their aging or dying parents, or in this case, watching as they tended to each other. It was even more likely in my sisters’ and my case, because my parents married and had us relatively later in life. Knowing and telling myself these things didn’t change the feeling that it was still happening too fast. My father wasn’t supposed to get diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when I was 30, and I wasn’t supposed to be picking out his grave and my own a few years later. Certain adult milestones were playing hopscotch with other adult milestones, when the linear progression of it all was one of the few securities I had unknowingly relied upon all these years. Why were they dying before I had even had a chance to become a proper adult, whatever that was supposed to be? I hadn’t even bought my first house yet.
Weirdly enough, shopping around for a burial plot did seem a little like house hunting.
After the mausoleum, the director drove us around on a guided tour of the rest of the grounds.
It began to feel less like we were driving around a cemetery and more like we were checking out a new neighborhood with an estate agent, peering into people’s driveways to cast judgment on their crabgrass.
Along a slight dip in the road, he pointed out the window to a shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary, where other Filipinx families were buried. “This is Our Lady of Antipolo,” he said.
My mother dismissed the area with a wave of her hand. “No, no, the feng shui’s no good here, can’t you see?” Our Lady of Antipolo was tucked behind a columbarium behind the main road. I had no idea when or where she had studied up on cemetery feng shui, although it did appear that our people had been buried in the least attractive part of the cemetery.
The funeral director continued his 5-mph drive around the grounds. Peering out of the passenger-side window, my mother spotted a few flat, rectangular metal plaques bolted into the earth, gravestone markers so small and close together that they resembled bricks in a paved road. “Wow, how much are those?”
“Those are our lowest price option,” he replied.
“Wouldn’t someone step on you all the time though,” I asked, “mistaking you for the path?”
We drove on. As the road started to slope upward again, our eyes drifted to the highest point of the cemetery, where two walls of niches in gleaming gray granite stood just beyond a wrought iron arch bearing the title “Resurrection Walkway.”
“Resurrection Walkway is our most expensive space,” the director said. “Completely full.”
The walkway overlooked a majestic view of a nearby lake, like something out of a tourism ad for the Pacific Northwest. We continued onto “The City of God,” a few modest walls of niches that reminded me fondly of the book stacks in my old college library, so I inquired about them.
“Nazareth is full,” the director said, “but there’s still some availability in Mount Sinai, there in the top right.”
Availability. The word made me feel queasy, but an odd queasiness mixed with hope, the hope that comes with learning there’s still some real estate left on the market and you have a chance to get in there, literally. Just beyond Nazareth, I spotted a few small freestanding granite blocks, each holding a single shelf with a permanent flower vase.
“I like these little guys,” I said. “How many fit in one of those?”
After the tour, the funeral director drove us back to his office, so my mother could sign the final papers. Right before signing, she looked up at my sisters and me.
“No open casket for my wake,” she ordered. “I mean, what a time to be vain, you know?”
I nodded at this last attempt at humor but couldn’t muster a laugh. While we needed to secure a space for my father, did we have to decide everyone’s final resting place today?
“Listen Mom,” I said, “while I appreciate having the option, what if I don’t want to be cremated? Or what if when I am cremated, I want to spread my ashes somewhere like Gabriella? Or what if I get married and want to be buried next to my spouse?”
“You can always sell your space,” the director piped up from across his desk. “People sell them on Craigslist all the time.”
This guy again.
“Really? Craigslist? I had no idea.”
“You could also consider a cenotaph, a memorial marker even though your remains are buried elsewhere.”
“Isn’t that a fakeout though?”
“Well, with this fakeout, as you call it, for some people who are married twice, they might want to be buried with their children, but they love their second wife…These are tough decisions.”
I was starting to annoy him, I could tell. But I hate being sold to, especially when it comes to something as sensitive as a funeral, and I loathed the idea of someone trying to sell to my mother, although Lord knows the woman could take care of herself. And anyway, why treat death so delicately? Why not jokes? I like how Mark Twain put it, humor being the “kindly veil” we drop over the hard and sordid things of life “to blur the craggy outlines and make the thorns less sharp and the cruelties less malignant.” Humor is one of the few shields we have, our only release against the inevitability of our mortality.
I wasn’t sure if humor had become some elaborately weaponized shelter of sarcasm I was hiding under today or my own way of confronting death. Maybe it was both. Maybe I needed it to do more.
I used to think I was fairly good at accepting the concept of death because I wasn’t afraid to let conversations grow dark, because I could read about decaying corpses and find some descriptions of the dead and dying beautiful even— intestines that “bunched out in a thick white cluster like the congested petals of a sea flower,” as Norman Mailer wrote in one of my favorite passages from The Naked and The Dead. In contemplating my own funeral or affecting a macabre sense of humor, I liked to imagine that I was more comfortable with the concept of death than others. This is what an unwavering love of goth music and Victorian cemeteries does to you. My thoughts about death had never involved the act itself, just the pageantry.
I was initially startled by my mother’s no-nonsense approach to funeral planning—real, actual funeral planning, not just lofty ways to decorate one’s grave. Deep down, I had to admit there was part of me that respected it. She was trying to accept the idea of death through preparation, and in buying graves for the family, she was relieving my sisters and me of one more financial burden in an age of ever-escalating healthcare costs. My sisters and I would pay for nothing in the end: not my parents’ healthcare in their elderly years, not their burial—hell, if we wanted, not even our own burial. It was as if, in building a home for us, my parents had paid to have it taken down as well, slat by slat, stone by stone, sweeping and cleaning up the dust behind them, to make room for the next family that would take our space. It was a generosity I could never repay. I couldn’t help but feel that the roles should have been reversed by now, that I should have been taking on more of the financial planning and caretaking at this point. She was the adult nearing 80 and I was still the child, nearing 40. My father had become an additional child for her to take care of, now that his body and mind were destroyed by dementia and cancer.
When my father had been healthy, he was jolly and rotund: a more patient Fred Flintstone, a younger Santa. It was hard to believe that he was the same person even, and often I tried not to, because it was easier to accept that he was slowly dying if I fooled myself that the man I once knew was not the man in the sick bed. To connect him to the same person who retired early to sit by my own bedside for years when I was sick, this was a reality too horrible to be realized straight on. It was a reality that I never returned in kind. I spent more time helping out my mother in the kitchen because I could not assist my mother or the caregiver with my father. I was too afraid of seeing him naked; of the excrement, blood, and vomit; of his tunneled bed sore they stuffed with gauze. When I was with my father, one eye was always aimed at the clock, waiting for the moment when I could escape the room and resume my life: dress for work, go to the movies, meet up with friends for a drink. It was as if life outside sped up the instant I entered his room, and I was reminded of what I had not yet done that day, that week, those past few years; and while life flew by outside, it stood still within that room, as I patted my father’s hand, and smoothed his hair, and waited for him to die, in that useless dance of those who cannot be helped and those who cannot give it.
I had been told by others that the end would be harder to accept, if I remained this detached. But long illnesses offer these little moments of reprieve, I like to think, that small bench to rest at before the end, when you’re handed a box filled with your father’s ashes. Until then, there needed to be snarky comments about high school trophies and fakeouts and stupid Resurrection Walkway. Humor removed the reality of my father, at least for a minute.
I could make jokes at the cemetery that day because we were still debating metal boxes versus limestone gravestones, and I had asked my mother not to bring him that day, to have a nurse watch over him at home instead. I didn’t have to talk around him on the car ride over, or pretend that we were on a big family trip to nowhere. I didn’t have to picture him waiting in the car while the rest of us went to look at the mausoleum, where he would be buried first. He would have sat in the car and wondered where everyone had gone, and he would have complained, as he always did now, about how cold it was, and why the invisible mosquitos were biting him, and when we were coming back.