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Read more from Trista on xoVain.
I don’t even know what year my little sister died. I had to Google it. Searching through the search terms of “15-year-old”, “traffic accident”, “death” and “Alaska” can be a grim way to start your week.
Maybe I don’t remember because the entire summer became a surreal blur; humming, rainy, and neon green, as if seen from a car window. Entirely defined by “Before” and “After.”
It was Sunday. Sunlight slanted into the loft of my cabin, and me and my partner at the time were dozing, making coffee, and happy to still be in bed. We heard a car pull up, and I assumed that it was the Jehovah’s Witnesses that were hell-bent on ruining weekends. But whoever it was pounded up the steps and came right in the house.
“You need to come downstairs.” It was my brother-in-law; there would be no reason for him to be at my house so early. My chest grew tight.
I came down, and my sister was there too, her eyes swollen. I looked to my brother-in-law, and he looked directly into my eyes, before I said anything.
“There was a car accident, and Sheena is dead.” he said. But it didn’t make sense. Who is Sheena? Accident? Where? He doesn’t mean my sister, she is a person that is alive.
The details came quickly, but they seemed muddy and distant: there had been a rollover, her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel, everyone else is fine, she died almost instantly.
Immediately, I start to picture the accident scene. The van rolling in slow motion, like a shot from CSI. I know just where it was-- right after a straightaway where tons of moose hang out, on the way to my parents' house. My mind moves over the facts: it was at 7am, Mile 13, there are 3 people that survived the accident. I will never speak to them or ask what they saw.
The numbers give me comfort, but I want to know the official cause of death, so the first thing I do is call the Alaska State Troopers. The officer on the other end is patient and apologetic, and gives me the name of the medical examiner, confused as to why I need it. These details settle satisfyingly into my stomach. I had answers.
We drove past the accident site to my parents’ house in a loud silence, punctuated with inappropriate jokes. My parents were beside themselves, obviously, and when the Troopers called us to let us know Sheena’s body had been transferred back to a funeral home, I decided I would take over the task of making arrangements.
The funeral home so quiet it sounded like people actively shushing you. There was a felt sign with stick-on white letters, announcing the showing of an old woman who lay neatly in a casket on a stage. The entire setup looked suspiciously like the set of Designing Women, complete with bad lighting and fake windows cosseted with venetian blinds. I craned my neck to see the dead woman; she was in her 80s, and wore bright magenta lipstick and day-glo blue eyeshadow. I immediately thought of "My Girl," and the struggle for a ‘natural look’ at funeral homes. Really? Is it really that hard? Stop putting magenta lipstick on every dead person ever, and you’d already be like 80% there.
The funeral director stage-whispered me into his office, as if we might wake the woman in the casket. Something about his manner made me bristle. He gave us his canned, “Oh, I’m so sorry for you,” speech, followed quickly by the same line given by wedding planners: “You only get to do this once,” he said, “Better do it right.”
“Do what right?” I asked, thinking about there being a wrong way to cremate someone. Seemed like tire fires were right out.
“The memorial service,” he folded his hands into a tight little sandwich across his belly. “We have a selection of caskets--” he began.
“Oh, we won’t need that. We’re going to do cremation.” I said, fixing my eyes hard on the urns made of Harley Gas tanks behind him. His lips crumpled into a frown.
“You know, it’s a very permanent decision,” he said, flipping through a stack of pamphlets, “Here, I suggest that people who are in favour of cremation read this. Everyone should be educated about the--well, the process.”
It was a pamphlet that described how cremation works, in grisly detail. At what point their skin and hair burn, what it looks like. What happens to their intestines, teeth. Described with a frankness generally reserved for cookbooks. I was delighted! These are sweet, horrific, comforting answers. I wrapped myself in 400°F and leftover skull fragments. I felt so safe and sure, knowing exactly what would happen.
“Oh, terrific. This all sounds great. Exactly what I had pictured. What do we need to do?” I said, smiling, and pocketing the pamphlet.
And so, my little sister was unceremoniously burned somewhere up on a nice hill. It wasn’t like a funeral pyre, that’s just where the crematorium happened to be. We were given a box of her ashes, and that was that.
No service. No memorial. No funeral. A few weeks later, a few of her close friends trickled in to my parents’ house to give condolences. My sisters and I talked a lot in the months that followed, and I grew closer to my parents that I had ever been, with lots of random visits and late-night phone calls. We worked through the terrible as best we could, with the only tools we had--a ripe goulash of Irish stoicism and wit. It got better.
When my grandpa died years earlier, we struggled with whether or not to have a funeral or service at all; he was a transplant from England, and most of his family and friends were there or had already passed on. We decided just to send his box of ashes back to the Motherland. After a trip to the pub, he was put to rest next to his wife. Zero cocktail wieners, casket decor or public weeping involved.
And I think I like it that way.
The funeral is basically the creepy Victorian twin of a wedding. They are astronomically expensive. There are flowers to buy. Things you’ll never use are purchased and buried somewhere. The room is probably going to smell like farts because old people.
Storing a body (okay, we’re not comparing to weddings anymore!) usually requires embalming, which can be very expensive, so funerals usually take place within a few days or weeks of a death. How was I, a week after my sister passed? Probably at my worst. We had started going through her things, we had called most of the family, and I had returned to work. Organizing an event for distant family, who weren’t sure exactly which one of us sisters she was, the random neighbours or her ‘friends’ that bullied her on Myspace just weeks before her death.
Yeah, no. I wasn’t going to be doing that. I didn’t need to throat-punch anyone in a church.
There is a lot of pressure to have a funeral. Our old church called, letting us know they were holding a Mass in her honour, and like a jealous boyfriend, asked where we were holding the memorial, if not there. But we just decided to not. While I can see how a religious ceremony would be really important--if you were particularly religious--it didn’t really mean much to us. We hadn’t been to that church in over 15 years, and when we did go, it was clear we didn’t belong.
There is also the idea of how you ‘should’ act after tragedy. I deal with humour, and I’m fully aware that not everyone understands that. I’ve been to several funerals where there were comments about who was crying too much or too little. Do I look sad enough? If you don’t, everyone assumes you aren’t. “Oh, they weren’t really close,” people will whisper. Or the hangers-on hungry for details--“So like, did you see anything?”
People ask, “If there’s anything I can do, please let me know,” which is both nice, and useless. Do you know of a pet cemetery? Are you a necromancer? No? Okay. Then don’t ask people if they need help. Give it. You’re essentially asking them to find you a task so they feel useful and helpful. I was absolutely humbled by the people that saw how to help and just did.
I’ve had a startling number of friends pass. Some had services, some didn’t. But it’s always the same: the real healing always takes the form of sitting around and talking about the person we’d lost on some other, random, beautiful, less full-of-pressure day. I know that’s what’s supposed to happen at memorials, but it doesn’t. It rarely does. It’s often too weird to lose yourself in front of strangers, that we all just work on raking leaves over our feelings. And you know, that’s healthy.
So when you die, I might not go to your funeral, but that doesn't mean I don't love you. It means I don't like weeping in public, and the weirdness of doing that in a room of strangers overshadows the purpose, which was to remember and celebrate you. But I will. I don’t want my memories of you in a weird community hall that smells like hot beef, or a church full of assholes I don’t know. I’ll think of you whenever Skynyrd comes on the radio, or I hear a girl with just your laugh, or when my kid makes the exact same noise to fall asleep that you did.
Because I AM sentimental sucker, I just like to do it in the privacy of my own car. But if there are free meatballs, I’d consider it.