Ah, spring, when an oldish couple's fancy turns to . . . coffins.  Here's an email my mother sent to the family yesterday:

The carpenter brought the coffins and they're standing right in Joey's old room, one inside the other to save room. They're very nice, plain pine boxes with rope handles. The simplest way to deal with the whole thing is to wrap the body in a nice quilt and I suppose a little pillow, and that's that. You do not have to buy a coffin from the funeral director, you can bring your own.

You can get information about funerals from www.funerals.org so you can avoid falling into the various traps the funeral industry has laid for vulnerable consumers. For example, in most cases it's not required to be embalmed.

Now to see if I can get Abba to make a will and pre-plan the funerals. I wish I could say that I would then set about de-cluttering the house, but due to a total stalemate in my and Abba's forty-nine year quarrel on the subject, some of you are probably going to have to make a visit to Deepening Dread [this is the official name of my childhood house. Yes, there is a sign on the door] and grab whatever you want and throw the rest in one of those gigantic dumpsters.

love, Ima

This note may seem slightly ghoulish to you, but it actually represents a great leap forward toward sunny optimism on the part of my parents. I can remember, for instance, that their original plan (pre-conversion to Catholicism) was to somehow manage to die in or near a Hefty bag, for ease of being hauled out into the woods. Or maybe they wanted to be dumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, I forget.

Even before they were Catholics, they rejected any whiff of funereal scammery, exquisitely skewered by Liberace in this 1965 film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One

HA. "Rayon chafes, you know."

I also immensely enjoyed this short account of how the bereaved children of a Supreme Court Associate Justice swatted down the psychological pressure to buy something she calls "the throne coffin,"  when her father had specified that he wanted his funeral to be "simple and cheap." 

It's not that Catholics have contempt for the body. On the contrary, the Catechism says that "The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit."


As Catholics, though, we distinguish between reverence and pompousness, empty symbolism and the symbolism of simplicity. I don't suppose there's anything sinful about spending money on embalming a corpse (although people ought to know that some practices don't deliver what they suggest.  According to funerals.org, "[W]hat happens to a body in a "sealed" casket? Instead of the natural dehydration that occurs in most climates, anaerobic bacteria take over and the body putrifies—as any grave-digger can attest after an exhumation").

There's nothing wrong with comforting the bereaved by furnishing useless comfort (air spring cushions, adjustable pillows) to the inhabitant of the coffin.  But there must be something right about trying to strip away as many extraneous things as possible before death -- leaving the world as naked as you were when you entered, in preparation for any further stripping-away that is to come. 

The Catholic Catechism draws out the parallels between birth and death, saying:

For the Christian the day of death inaugurates, at the end of his sacramental life, the fulfillment of his new birth begun at Baptism ...  The Church who, as Mother, has borne the Christian sacramentally in her womb during his earthly pilgrimage, accompanies him at his journey's end, in order to surrender him "into the Father's hands."

Let's read that again:  The Church is a mother, who bears and nourishes us as unborn children throughout our lives, until there is that happy crisis of transition, when we die.  And, as at all happy births, the Father is there to catch the child and, when he is ready, to bring him home.

Don't you feel sorry for people who don't have a catechism to just go ahead and EXPLAIN EVERYTHING?  And now I'm off to check in with my husband, to make sure we're not brewing any forty-nine year quarrels . . .