By Cynthia Lessard
“I think we should make a guest list,” my mother said. We were sitting in our customary seats next to each other, she on the faded sofa and I on the matching loveseat, separated by a coffee table where we usually place our drinks. “You girls will be there obviously. Colleen, Shar, Peggy. I don’t know about Phil. My brother Terry definitely not…”
“A guest list?” I asked. “Should I hire a bouncer too?” We laughed, both fans of black humour. The event we were planning was her funeral.
My mother (my best friend) was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer when I was thirteen; she was forty-six. Her prognosis was good — the doctors anticipated a full recovery subsequent to her having a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. She went into remission and joined RowBust, a dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors. For all my adolescent self knew, life was back to normal. Cancer became nothing but an unpleasant memory for me — a thief who stole a year from our family and lurked outside our house threatening to steal more time.
But it recurred. The cancer reappeared in her left breast and pre-cancerous cells were detected in the right. She gave up her breasts, those all-important curves that mark the transition from childhood to womanhood, in order to save her life.
Then it spread — to her bones and her ovaries, to her brain. For the next ten years, cancer turned my mother’s body into her enemy; her skin was a prison from which she could not escape. Every pain, no matter how slight, caused her mental anguish. In all that time, I never asked my mother about death. I had seen her through the most complicated experimental surgeries; she had suffered through so many injections that her veins collapsed and she needed a special nursing team to administer her chemo. The way I figured it, my mother was a warrior and she would not die until she was good and ready. So I did not ask, but I think she knew that when she chose death, I would be the one left to deal with the aftermath.
At first, like many people, she assumed she would have a traditional church funeral followed by a wake. As her disease progressed, however, our conversations about death, funerals, and even heaven changed. She began to question the ritual and its cost. She adopted the attitude that funerals were fine for some, especially those who died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving friends and loved ones shocked and grief-stricken. “I’ve been dying for close to ten years,” my mother said one day. “If my friends want to say goodbye, they can do it while I still have the chance to say ‘see you soon!'”
When my father was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, our house was in foreclosure in lieu of property taxes. With this financial setback, and feeling the alienation produced by terminal illness, my mother decided not to have a funeral. I was happy. After dealing with the physical and emotional exhaustion of working to pay the family’s bills, accompanying both my parents to and from doctor’s appointments, administering needles and medication, and going to school, I did not have any energy left to plan a funeral. I had no idea that the hidden costs of sheltering their bodies and signing death certificates would be so exorbitant. It was difficult for me to realize that had my parents wanted funerals, I would not have been able to afford them on my own and would have gone into debt to pay for the kind of send-off they deserved.
My parents did not want to die at home — my mother felt that this would create an unnatural attachment to the house and she feared that we might never move out. My father was the first to be admitted to the palliative care department at Parkwood Hospital in London, Ontario. This is when the costs associated with death became very clear to me. My mother and I sat in a comfortable room on the fifth floor that was designed to look like a living room in a family home, complete with cushy sofas, a kitchen and dining room, and a piano — a convincing show, save for the boxes of tissue on every surface. A kind but terse social worker asked us about funeral arrangements and I had to explain that we had decided not to have funerals. She explained to me that we still needed to contact a funeral home to have a place to transfer the body and arrange for either burial or cremation.
Luckily, my mom was good friends with Leon Gregory, a funeral director at a local funeral home. He was a gentle bear-like man, extremely sensitive and perceptive. His views on funerals and their associated costs were similar to my mom’s. “Put me in a box and throw some dirt on me” were his exact words.
We never actually went to the funeral home until after my father had died. My mother, my sister, and I arrived at the funeral home a few hours after seeing my father for the last time. His body was already there. They charged us $250 for the transfer from the hospital to the funeral home and another $100 to transfer his body to the crematorium. “Couldn’t you just transfer him directly to the crematorium without bringing him to the funeral home since we aren’t actually having a service?” I asked.
“Oh no, we never do that!” said the funeral director (not Leon, as he was on vacation at the time). This man was slightly insensitive and short with us, all business: “We need to prepare and shelter the remains.” That was another $100.
“What’s involved in this ‘preparing and sheltering’ if he’s being cremated?” my mother asked, tired and dizzy from a recent round of intense radiation to her brain.
“Well, he needs to be put in a container for cremation. We have some fine solid pine…” he said. I looked at the price list he’d handed me: $650 for a container that was going to be burned to ash. “We have a reinforced cardboard container for just $275 if cost is an issue. He has to be in some kind of container for cremation. Oh, and we have payment plans.”
We didn’t need a payment plan, we needed the services to be more affordable. We knew that the arrangements we wanted would be covered by the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) Death Benefit, a one-time lump-sum payment to the deceased person’s estate after death. The benefit maxes out at $2500, depending on how much and for how long the deceased has paid into the CPP, which is enough to cover paperwork and cremation, but not enough for services. I used to think that all Canadians were eligible for this benefit and was shocked to see that it only goes to those who have paid a significant amount into the CPP. What happens to the people who work many part-time jobs and don’t make significant CPP contributions, or to those who die when they are young? Does the family have to incur the costs themselves?
In total, we spent the entire maximum death benefit on the arrangements and cremation — nothing fancy. The bulk of the money, $695, was spent on meeting the funeral director just to sign the documents. Less than two weeks later I was back at the funeral home with my mother, but this time we were in different rooms and in different states of being, and I was signing her paperwork.
Most people don’t know what their loved ones want when they die. Most people don’t ever have that conversation. They step into the funeral home and are willing to pay any price to show the world their love. If my parents had wanted to be buried in pure gold coffins lined with silk, I would have found a way to finance it. Associating money with love is a mistake everyone makes, and is why the funeral industry can charge so much for their services. Grief-stricken people do not have the time or mental energy to ask why services are so expensive. It’s not that I think the funeral industry is unimportant; they provide an essential service. I just think that if my parents had wanted a service, I should not have to go into debt to pay for it. Fortunately, we had talked about my parents’ wishes and I knew that they wanted nothing more than for me to carry them home, which is what I did. I drove to the funeral home after they had been cremated and carried their ashes in my arms, surprised by how light they felt.