When my cat was dying last year, I spent a lot of time in bed with him, laptop awkwardly tilted on my knees so he could fit on my lap. He got smaller and smaller and smaller as his time grew shorter, and was determined, up to the very last, to butt himself firmly into my space.
He interfered whenever I tried to work, giving me his creaky, asthmatic purr, and I always relented and made room for him, even if it meant typing at a ridiculous angle.
One night I was chatting to a friend. It must have been close to the end because I was trying to plan ahead, to figure out what to do with his remains. At the time, I thought the closest crematory that handled animals was Bubbling Well, located well over two hours away in Napa, and I was trying to steel myself for the drive to the south with a dead cat in my trunk.
I was poking around their website and talking with my friend1 when we stumbled across their funerary urns, which are, well, frankly, really, really tacky. We started cracking up as we sent links back and forth, trying to find the ugliest examples on the site. I was wheezing with laughter by the time we got to the point where my friend pointed out that she was pretty sure her dogs would haunt her forever if she put them in the Doberman urn.
Shadow was curled up in my lap sleeping, occasionally cracking one eye partially to give me a dirty look when I laughed too hard. A few days later, he was dead, and I was driving to a thankfully closer veterinary clinic to have him cremated. I spent that night with friends, and I asked someone for something, and he looked reluctant, and I said:
“Do not make me play the dead cat in a box card, because you know I will.”
He gave in and brought me the bowl of ice cream I’d demanded from my throne on the couch.
The thing is, I have a really macabre sense of humor, and some people find it very offputting. I’ve spent a lot of time with death, and consequently, I joke about it a lot. I make really tasteless and inappropriate jokes, sometimes, which occasionally gets me into trouble when I’m not with people who share my sense of humor. I have been the cause of many an awkward silence, let me tell you.
I try to put the FUN in funeral wherever I can, because, you know, the thing about death is that it is scary. It’s dark and very final and there’s no coming back from it. But, also, sometimes it is kind of funny.
And when you’re left behind to pick up the pieces, there are a lot of different responses to it, and I’ve had a wide array of them: catatonically standing in the shower while the water beats down; curling up in a ball on the living room floor; refusing to emerge from bed for weeks on end; or making tasteless jokes at memorial services for people whom I know would have appreciated them. Among others.
I was talking with my father recently about some end-of-life decisions. He doesn’t have an advance directive, although I’ve strongly encouraged him to get one, and for the time being I’ve settled for quizzing him on what he wants me to do in hypothetical situations. Those conversations include what he wants me to do when he kicks the bucket2.
“I want you to hold a really big party,” he says. “I hate memorials.”
I have a vision of renting out Crown Hall and getting the Brown Brothers Blues Band in, and having exactly what he asked for: a really big party. There will be tons of food and booze galore and loud music and dancing and fun times. There will be no speeches, although there might be a guestbook for people to write crude messages in. Because that’s the kind of guy my dad is. Like me, he hates dour, sad, weeping, draped in crepe memorials.
Neither of us particularly fears the reaper. Sometimes we forget that other people do, and their way of dealing with it doesn’t involve monumentally inappropriate jokes that leave people gasping in horror.
In California, there are no specific laws against caring for your own dead. You do need to secure a death certificate and a permit to dispose of the remains. You are not obligated to go to a funeral home or work with a mortician. With the right paperwork, you can load dear old Dad up in the back of a minivan, drive him to the crematory, and ask them to pop him in on high until nicely toasted.
Which is exactly what I plan to do.
Because he asked me to do it.
My jocose attitude about death is simply my way of dealing with it; death, in many ways, is actually very hilarious, at the same time that it is deeply tragic. The actual process of dealing with remains, for me, has been a reminder that the body is just a vessel to hold something that is long gone. Caring for the remains of my dead is my last opportunity to feel a connection with that vessel, at the same time that it all feels like a giant joke because that person inside is long gone.
I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife or lingering spirits, although I do think that our dead live on within us, and thus I can say with confidence that my father is the kind of guy who would crack up if I accidentally dropped his coffin and it cracked open and tumbled his body into the street.
He, like me, is also the kind of person who would turn this story into an oft-repeated party tale which would grow more and more embroidered over the years. Eventually it would probably involve a speeding big rig, a van full of nuns and a mariachi band.
Because that’s just the kind of people we are; we’re deeply, deeply macabre and adore being inappropriate, but we’ll show up to have your back in your time of need anyway.
1. Said friend actually just sent me an email threatening to enclose my ashes in a sparkly pink angel statue on a rotating plinth, complete with hideous sculptures of bounding cats around its feet. Return
2. And yes, we do use that exact phrase. Return