No one could believe she hadn’t planned her husband’s funeral. It seemed natural that a funeral would be on one’s to do list when a loved one is faced with incapacitating cancer. But after days and months enduring the foreign and tumultuous journey of a life threatening illness, Max and Lucy had not even discussed the ‘after.’ I think she felt planning it would be a betrayal of his optimism; his effort to squeeze every last drop out of life. She may have thought it a waste of precious numbered moments on a task that would have its requisite time when the task of staying alive was complete.
It is not in a hospice volunteer’s job description to be involved in funeral planning. I had assumed most volunteers were notified of the death and made a polite appearance at the service. Max was my first palliative hospice client and not much about my relationship with him had gone as anticipated. I think I expected my clients to be elderly ladies with cats, weathered teapots and photos of their grandchildren. I learned, however, that life threatening illnesses don’t wait until adoring offspring are prepared to carry on your name.
Aggressive cancer doesn’t stand around until your memories are carefully catalogued in albums and metastases don’t care if you’ve seen all you want to in life and are prepared to bow out gracefully. Max was certainly not ready; he had not finished creating memories and his family was not yet settled. Max still had a greenhouse to build, a barn to tear down, farm equipment to sell and was barely on speaking terms with his daughter.
Every illness has stages. It seems that as soon as one stage becomes ‘normal’ the rug is pulled out to reveal a different but equally disorienting stage. Max’s final stage came oddly enough after the last item of his to do list was crossed off in his trusty notebook. As much as any death can be predicted by an illness, I have found that every death seems somehow sudden. Here one moment then suddenly, mysteriously gone. The business of death, the paperwork, the arrangements are all difficult in the wake of this slap on the face. Being confronted by this business was proving difficult for Max’s wife, Lucy because she had never been involved in planning a funeral before. It was then that I found myself continuing to provide support for Lucy.
Lucy was at a loss. Money was an issue. There was not a lot of extra money for an extravagant funeral. And even if the money had been there, the question of how to best reflect the vibrant spirit of Max and have a healing and meaningful ceremony remained.
Lucy tried to look at caskets and as difficult as this task was the “sticker-shock” made it worse. Lucy ordered a plain wooden casket and had it delivered to her home. Plain wood would not be a true reflection of Max, but Lucy had a plan. That evening she invited friends to gather at her home. She brought out paint, brushes, wine and music and directed them to decorate the unadorned pine. At first there was awkwardness as no one was sure exactly what to do. Some thought it quite strange or disrespectful to paint a casket. As people began to consider the spirit and memories of Max—and they drank some wine—they realized it was a perfect idea. Soon, the ideas, memories and impressions of Max’s life, dreams and relationships began to colour his casket. By the end of the evening the box came alive, completely covered in painted images reflecting a big life that had touched many people. The funeral home staff was surprised at the vibrant kaleidoscope of colour and the deeply personal tribute that returned to the home the next day.
This set the tone for the remainder of Max’s send off. In a refurbished historical church, Max was remembered in a festival of live music, commentary and friendly reminiscence by a small gathering of his family and friends. The spontaneous and original ideas of how to remember Max, and the fellowship Lucy found in her journey to put it all together could never have been pre-planned. Life is a journey that awaits us…