A Celebration of Life

by Dan Popoff

The only thing my mind can focus on standing out here at this cemetery in the middle of July in Charlotte, North Carolina, is that it is flipping hot. It has to be a hundred degrees. A myth I always hear—funeral directors get used to the heat—false.

Perhaps it is the agitation, or maybe it is the disbelief as they call this service a celebration of life. Everyone attending would disagree. Seventeen years old, gone, dead. Who would consider this a celebration at all?

At the end of the service, it is customary for the funeral director to dismiss the ceremony and walk to the front row, which I have done thousands of times, and tell the surviving family members, This concludes our services here at the graveside. If you would like to speak with family and friends, you can now.

Today was different.

As I walked under the tent to dismiss the family, my eyes locked on the mother.

Reality hits.

Lying in that solid oak casket was this family's son. Deciding at seventeen, or at any age to end one's life, does not come without consequences. This young man had his whole life in front of him. Just the night before his suicide, he scored eighteen points in his youth league basketball game. North Carolina State was looking at him to play basketball next year.

In my twenty-three years of directing funerals, this ranks as one of the more complicated services I have led.

All the promise of what could have been, lost.

#

The only word that comes to mind is why. Being a selfish person, all I can think about is myself. I spent six hours embalming this young man. I missed having dinner with my fiancé on a Friday night, so I can fix the damage he caused to his body.

Why is it so flipping hot as I try to re-direct blame for this uncomfortable reality? Now I must end this service for these two parents, close the book on their child’s life.

How is this a celebration of life? Death would have been the last thing on anyone's mind a few short days ago, yet, here we are standing with a warped sense of what is real.

If reality stays true to form, this won't be the last time someone ends their life, dies of cancer, gets killed in a brutal car accident by a drunk driver. Yes, death comes in many shapes and way too many forms, but as a funeral director, we take each one as if it was the only one that mattered.

Where does it stop?

Why does society let death have the last word? Now I must look this young couple in the eyes, eyes void of what is real, and tell them it's over.

Instinct takes over as I center myself on this mother and father sitting in the chairs. As I leaned down, my fifty-year-old body doesn't bend like it used to. Just as my forward motion starts, this grieving mother jumps up and hugs me. Terror overcomes me. What do I say? This never happened in the twenty-three years of practice. She holds me as the re-vibrations from her crying shake my whole body.

#

Again, blaming the heat because in an instant while she had her arms around me, I stretched out my arms and hugged her back. Not the visual I could predict as it must have been shocking to see. Here I am six foot one, two hundred forty pounds hugging this five-foot-nothing, barely one-hundred-pound lady. My fellow staff members who helped work this funeral service must have been in shock. I could almost hear their whispers of comic proportions. I am not a hugger. Strangers never hug, but here I was embracing this lady, and it seemed at that moment I lost all of who I thought I was.

As she relaxes her arms and steps back, she muttered, "Thank you," as tears rolled down her cheeks.

I stood there dumbfounded looking at this mother. Reality hits; there are no words.

My mind spins thinking, did we just celebrate a life cut way too short? Why did he do it, who is to blame?

I always found the phrase, a celebration of life, to be troubling. Sure, great men and women, who live long and illustrious lives making contributions to society and the community in which they live and die, are considered to be of the natural order. Sure, it is appropriate in those circumstances, but how do we equate that to someone who ends his own life?

As someone who always finds it challenging to say the right words, all I can do is clench my back teeth. I have become good at that pose as it displays almost a smile with my lips. Reality is I'm biting down so hard it hurts.

All I can do looking at this mother say, "You are welcome," as I hold both of her hands and put on that smile.

The funeral business with all of its glitz and glamour carries with it a sense of pain and suffering. Not that being a funeral director is painful, but it exposes us to some of the most unthinkable times, the lowest of the low. The men and women who dedicate their lives in the service of others come from all walks of life. We go through training; we go through schooling; we take licensing examinations, but nothing can prepare us to look at parents who just lost a child. We give up time with our own families to answer the call, to spring into action and bury the dead. We wonder why we get mad. We feel the sadness about the finality of death. We come away with the feeling that death should not have the last word as we wait for the next call.

About the Author

Dan Popoff

Dan is a licensed practicing funeral director in North Carolina and adjunct instructor of English at South Piedmont Community College. He holds an MFA In Writing with a focus In Creative Nonfiction from Lindenwood University and also holds a Masters of Science Degree in Psychology with an emphasis on death and dying. Dan lives and writes from his home in Lancaster, South Carolina.