Funeral Sherpa

If you’ve ever driven on Queens Boulevard, you know that there’s a long string of cemeteries smack in the middle of Queens. But you may not know that a little farther north, about where the Brooklyn Queens Expressway meets the Grand Central Parkway, there’s a nice little cemetery on Astoria Boulevard called St. Michael’s. In our vague planning discussion, C and I had realized that this would be an obvious place to have our own final resting places, so, years ago, one nice weekend day we walked over there (it’s right by the Bulova Center, which I do a loop around regularly as one of my power walk routes) and explored. It’s not surrounded by niceness (mostly industrial) and isn’t that easy to approach on foot, but it’s beautiful inside. Scott Joplin is buried there and they have an annual summer concert/picnic there.

The Petersons, being areligious (to put it mildly) and not sentimental, had never been ones to think of a dead body as something to celebrate and revere. My Protestant (paternal) grandparents had been cremated and one day at my Aunt Joyce’s house, we buried the ashes in her yard. My Catholic (maternal) grandparents had had viewings and funeral masses and rest in a crypt space in an outdoor mausoleum in Albany, but my mother had firmly rejected Catholicism (after being quite devout when young, even going to a Catholic college) and was having none of that. We were going to be cremation people. (Actually, after Six Feet Under, I kinda wanted to be a green burial person.) I’d expressed my own thoughts about what a body is or isn’t, or has or hasn’t, when she passed away two years ago. Bottom line: I don’t know where the deceased is now, but he/she certainly isn’t in the body any more.

But C and I walked around the lovely cemetery and enjoyed what we saw, and talked. He made it clear that he did not want to be cremated, he wanted the funeral mass and all that. (Someday, I’ll discuss his Catholicism, which I admired without sharing myself.) But he was adamant that he didn’t want to be buried below ground. We knew we wanted to be kept together, and he was fine with me being in an urn while he was in a casket. We jokingly discussed getting a private little ‘house’ mausoleum for a zillion dollars, but basically were pretty set on sharing an indoor crypt space in one of the lovely buildings they have there for that.

So we knew what we wanted, and had plans to actually set that up ahead of time, and that task was far enough up the list that if COVID hadn’t happened, and then his health issues, we might have actually done it. But we hadn’t, so that had to happen now.

I’ve mentioned here before that my friend Susan got hit with the hugest of whammies two years ago. Her parents lived in Willingboro, NJ, about two hours south of NYC. Her mom, who hadn’t been well for a long time, passed away right before Christmas 2019. So she and her dad grieved and buried her mom in central PA, where both her parents grew up, and she and her dad got into a routine of checking on each other daily and working through the estate and trying to get her dad to write down what needed to happen if he passed away. (Meanwhile, my mom passed away about a month later, so we were very much trying to help each other.) Then her dad passed away suddenly at the beginning of March. So she’s now mourning both her parents, dealing with both estates and a house that is nowhere near where she lives – and then COVID hit and shuts everything down, and quintuples the level of difficulty.

So she’s had two years of dealing with that, and me and other friends have visited her in Willingboro several times to help with the house as she bounced back and forth (unhappily) between the two homes. (cross your fingers, all that may be wrapped up soon and she’ll be able to sell the house and stuff). BUT, bottom line, as soon as I told her that Charles had passed away, she was like, “I am coming up there for the week and I will be by your side and help you with everything about the funeral, because I just went through all that.” Bless her heart, and not in the Southern bitchy sense, but for real. I wasn’t sure if I needed that, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed. I dubbed her my ‘funeral sherpa’, leading me safely through the dangerous lands of funeral planning. (She will also continue to advise me on estate stuff, although I suspect my estate stuff will be far easier than hers.)

On Sunday, when the ladies descended, one of the things we’d done was pick out C’s burial outfit, so that was all packed up and ready to bring to the funeral home. I’d found his wedding ring, which I wanted him to wear for the viewing, and also wanted him to wear his wedding-present ring that I’d given him – emeralds and diamonds – but it wasn’t in his jewelry box. No biggie, I knew it was somewhere, and we just chose another nice ring. And I got the rings back after the viewing, before they closed the casket. The day after the funeral , when I was pulling out C’s sweaters for my dad to try on if he wanted any, I found an extra jewelry box hidden behind the sweaters, with the ‘good rings’ in it. That sneaky bitch!

The funeral home had also asked for pictures. Patti in her box-sorting had pulled out a stack of ‘just Charles’ prints, and I selected some great ones from there. There were other prints that I had in my head and couldn’t remember where they were, until I realized they were hanging on the wall in the hallway, so I pulled them down and had Susan deframe them. I spend a frantic hour or two going through digital photos and assembling a collection. (Me looking at vacation photo directories – did I not actually assemble a ‘Charles and Eric’ bunch from these before? shit, I don’t have time to look through a thousand France pictures right now.) Susan calmed me down, saying, this does not have to be comprehensive, just representative. No one is going to notice if there are no France pictures in the set. Yep, OK, I get that.

So, we’d been told we didn’t actually have to schedule an appointment with St. Michaels, we just headed over there in the late morning when we were ready. Met up with Cesar (the guy in the picture from the website), very nice, and I told him what I wanted. We walked over to the St. Mary’s building (there’s a St. Joseph’s building too, and they’re building a third) and he showed me what was available. Apparently, there was the option of getting a single crypt with a niche beside it for the urn, but I opted for the double crypt to include both. (for CYA purposes, Cesar made it clear that we couldn’t have two caskets plus an urn in there, but could absolutely do a casket and an urn. I’d been worried that there’d be some sort of law or policy against that.)

Then, as I suspected, it turns out that the price for the crypt space is different depending on which row your space is in. (think of a file cabinet with drawers). The space right in front of you was the most expensive, the one right below it was the next, and the ones on top and bottom were the cheapest least expensive. There was some reason we didn’t want the bottom one. I asked both of them, but particularly Susan, is there any reason I shouldn’t go with the top row? Well, some mourners like to touch the plaque as they pray, and the top row is too high for that for most people. And I’m like, I don’t know anyone in our family who will care about that. So top row it was. There were about four possible spaces, I picked the one not near the window (looking out on construction now, and who knows what in the future). (He’s on the third floor of the St. Mary’s building, to the left of the elevator, if you’d like to go visit. I’m going tomorrow, for the first time since the funeral.)

Then off to fill out the paperwork. I had to pay for C’s half now, but I’ve got a few years to pay off mine in increments. There are also options to put a photo on the plaque, or vases. I didn’t, but they can be added later. We wrote out Charles’s and my full name to make sure there was enough room for both on the plaque. Somewhere along the line it occurred to us that maybe I’d want a photo of both of us to be added- and I could purchase that ahead of time and have that added when my urn is placed in there. So I think I probably will do that, and set that all up when I redo my own funeral instructions. (Susan had turned me on to a workbook you can buy called “I’m Dead, Now What?” that you fill out with your instructions and stuff and make easy to find for whoever might have to deal with your funeral, and I’ve already done that. I need to revisit it, though. )

Back home for a quick snacky lunch, then to the funeral home in Woodside. Susan had said it would be difficult and long, but I am actually very good about making snap decisions and not getting wrapped around the axle about stuff. We got there and handed over the clothes for the body, then got taken to the sample room. To both our surprise, Bill the funeral home guy started out with a discussion about caskets. (they had samples on the wall, not full caskets) Something we hadn’t known is that if you are ‘encrypting’ the body, you need a metal casket, they won’t let you have a wooden one. Since I totally would have gone for a wooden casket for Charles otherwise, this was a small bobble, but I looked at what they had, narrowed it down to two pretty quickly, and then picked the Merlot model. (I just googled quickly to see if I could find it online, but the ‘add to cart’ option just made me snort unattractively.)

Then I picked flowers. This took a while, not that I couldn’t find ones I liked, but I don’t trust my own visual sense. I would propose an option and ask Bill and Susan, “is this one OK” and they would hem and haw and say, “whatever you like” and I’m like, for god’s sake, please just tell me if this is awful. I like it, but that means nothing. Anyway, I picked a casket spray with white and red flowers and a ribbon that said “Love Always” and two flanking pillars with bouquets of red roses on the side. (and, as it turned out, these were perfect. I loved how it looked for real.)

We picked mass cards. If Catholic and familiar with the prayers, I also could have spent hours on that, but I just picked the basic package right away. For the prayer,

“Well, we have a whole book of prayers you could use, but usually people pick the Our Father or the Prayer of St. Francis…”

“What’s the Prayer of St. Francis?”

Bill points it out in the book, Susan recites it from memory.

“That one.”

(as predicted, I have a bunch of mass cards left, if anyone would like one. Happy to mail it to you, even.)

One thing that surprised me, but makes complete sense and was such a help, is that the funeral home did all the coordinating with the cemetery and the church. I’d just purchased the crypt space, but they’re the ones who set it up when the actual ‘entombment’ would happen. As far as the church, Charles didn’t have one he went to, so it just had to be a local Catholic church, but we were able to have it at St. Joan of Arc in Jackson Heights, which meant neighbors were able to easily come.

We did discuss the funeral service a bit. Bill said that there were options I’d have to pick but it was a basic structured Catholic mass and we could do some of that later. I said, if I had a ton of time, I could actually pull together my own musicians and music and do it up right, but I’d trust their organist, except I did want to include one piece that C liked a lot. Bill said he’d put me in touch with the organist (and then mistranslated what I wanted so that the organist thought I was bringing my own singer. Ack!). But that all got resolved later.

So once we got it all settled, Bill went away and did the numbers and came back with them. For, um, reasons, the bulk could be paid by credit card, but a chunk had to be by check and they also needed a fair amount of cash. They were actually hiring pallbearers (they claimed it was a liability issue, and I was happy to not have to chase down pallbearers, so fine) and that was where some of the money was going. And we were going to have a limo for me, my dad and brother, and Rich and Dottie (my in-laws).

So this all got wrapped up nicely (and I’ll say it again later, but I never felt like I was being pressured or cheated, and what we ended up getting was exactly what I ordered and it was all lovely – I’d recommend them to anyone).

And then Susan and I went back to the apartment and chilled out for a while and I did stuff and sent emails, and then I took her she took me to Bistro Eloise, one of our favorite local restaurants, for dinner. Appetite improving a bit, I didn’t have an entree, but I had pate and French onion soup, and we both had dessert. And she dropped me off at home

And I felt like we’d hit a milestone, it was now falling into place.

One thought on “Funeral Sherpa

  1. Denise

    “I don’t know where the deceased is now, but he/she certainly isn’t in the body any more.” Absolutely. When my dad died in a hospice and I went with my brother to view the body, he was squeamish about going in so I went first, and I came back and said to him “It’s ok, he’s not there any more.” I don’t know why I thought that would make it easier for him, but apparently it did, and I meant every word because that was the overwhelming feeling I got as soon as I walked in. Dad had moved on.


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