Dealing with the bizarre affairs of death

I’ve dealt with many people who have lost loved ones, seen how they deal with grief. As a journalist, I’ve occasionally had to step in and ask people in mourning to speak about their loss.

I’ve been fairly lucky for the most part. I lost a friend a few years ago, and sometimes I hear about an acquaintance passing away. It’s been a long time since I lost a family member.

That lucky streak ended New Year’s Eve.

I was at home in the morning and had decided to make some baked macaroni and cheese. It’s something I do occasionally when I want to make something elaborate. I had just popped the pan into the oven and set it for 25 minutes when my phone rang. The caller ID showed it was my sister calling.

There was something wrong. My sister doesn’t call me. She sends text messages. She contacts me through Facebook. For her to call me out of the blue was a sign that something serious was about to hit me.

Sometimes I hate being right.

My sister informed me that my stepfather had passed away. While it wasn’t completely unexpected given his health, it was still a shock to the system. I’d seen him a few days earlier on Christmas Day, and I’d watched him open my present to him. It was a coffee mug with a Star Trek logo on it. I figured he’d get plenty of use out of it, considering he couldn’t get through a day without coffee.

He never got the chance to use it.


Mom and Dad opening presents on Christmas Day. There was no indication that this would be Dad’s last Christmas. (Photo by Lee Pulaski)

Suddenly, the macaroni and cheese didn’t seem as important. I talked with my sister, and then my mother called from the hospital to let me know, unaware that I’d already been informed. My mother and my stepfather had been married for 35 years. That’s a lot longer than most marriages, even the ones that don’t get divorced. Mom was going to be without a constant human companion—With a number of Australian shepherds in the house, she was not going to be alone.


Mom knew it was coming, not right to the day or hour, but she said she’d been preparing for the possibility of his death. My stepfather had his first heart attack 17 years ago, and in recent years, I learned he had cancer, and he was dealing with significant pain.

Fortunately, he had life insurance, so my mother wasn’t going to have to sell the farm to pay for the costs associated with death. At this point, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t just say “funeral.” That’s because we’re not having one. It’s at his request. Funerals tend to have quite a mournful tone, with scores of people gathered together and radiating grief so that even those who thought they’d finished breaking down would soon discover there were more tears.

Dad preferred to keep things light. No, he wasn’t an obnoxious optimist, and anyone who ever met him can attest to that, but he wanted people to remember the good times, not gawk at him in a coffin like some carnival attraction. So no funeral.

It’s probably just as well. Just for simply cremating him, putting his ashes in a bottle and sending out an obituary, Mom is having to pay almost $4,000 for this. Could you imagine what the cost would have been if we’d decided to bury him? The cost of the coffin? The service? The hole in the ground? Whoever said you can’t take it with you must have had morticians in mind.

Like I said, though, Dad had life insurance, but can you imagine the other poor families without such a safeguard going into debt just to lay loved ones to rest? I remember writing a few years ago about a friend of mine in Arizona struggling to figure out how to buy a decent headstone for his own father. It’s just another reason to stay alive for one more day.

I’ve been in a bit of a fog this week, so it didn’t really hit until Thursday. Two things made the fact that Dad was gone all too real. The first was the bad news I got from the auto mechanic that I was facing major repairs on my Jeep. If Dad were still around, he’d probably try to fix my vehicle himself, even with his health not being the greatest. I don’t have that kind of support in all things mechanical anymore.

The second thing came later in the day, when I was working in the newspaper office. I’d written Dad’s obituary and sent it to the funeral home a couple of days prior, but now I was sitting at my desk, the obituary page open on my computer, and I was placing his obituary and photo on the page. I’ve placed hundreds of obituaries on newspaper pages, but this one was different. It cleared the fog and made me realize that, yes, we’re really doing this. We’re really saying goodbye.

Dad, goodbye until we meet again.


One thought on “Dealing with the bizarre affairs of death

  1. My parents bought a mausoleum crypt decades ago, so I don’t know what burial plots cost. After that, the greatest (and most variable) cost to a funeral is the casket. Dad always wanted a “pine box”–even clipped a couple of articles about people who made old-fashioned boxes for $500-700, but never had to foresight to order one for himself. When he kicked the bucket unexpectedly, Mom gave him his pine, but picked out the highest-priced of three or four the funeral home offered, not wanting to look “cheap.” What she did comment on was how all these people she knew would volunteer their services (organ, singer, altar boys, etc.) back in the day–over hundreds of funerals, and now it’s expected to provide a gratuity for their time.


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