My very elderly aunt, who has been bed-bound since she broke her hip last summer, has at long last been released from her suffering. The family members who controlled her modest finances are following her wishes in having her cremated. Oddly, the resulting freedom from time pressure makes it all the more difficult to settle on appropriate funeral rites. It becomes almost like choosing a wedding date; I expect "hold the date" cards in the mail any day now. Nor did it take long for the participants to stumble, as if for the first time, on the notion that the service should not be anything as dour as a funeral, but instead a celebration of her life. I long for the old-fashioned approach: a standard ceremony expressing loss, grief, and respect, conducted immediately for whoever can manage to fly in, with minimal pressure on the family to agree on what would be an appropriate celebration of a life they all viewed so differently.
As we are all Episcopalians, that seemed the least likely point of controversy: just pick a church and hold a service out of the Book of Common Prayer. I find now, though, that the plan is to hold a service in the chapel of the "assisted living" facility where my aunt spent ten unhappy years after being uprooted from her East Texas home. The family sold her on assisted living on the reasonable grounds that she could not take care of herself in a town she no longer shared with any family. It made sense to move to where most of her surviving family lived. The fact remained, however, that she was being institutionalized. That the institution had a benevolent purpose didn't change the fact that it was devoted to systematizing its residents' schedules: telling them when to eat, when to sleep, and when to wake -- for their own good, of course, and in order to maintain some orderly structure in their lives. My aunt simply hated it. She appreciated having help, but quickly discerned the underlying message of the place, which was that residents who asked for too much help (a wheelchair, for instance) would be moved from their small but reasonably humane apartments into a nursing wing, where there were two beds to a room and no room for much of anything personal. She put off that last evolution until she broke her hip and became bed-bound, but she had been so dreading it for years that she endured excruciating pain in walking rather than use a wheelchair. The residents all feared the nursing wing. It didn't matter what the staff called it -- I think "extended living" is the currently accepted euphemism -- they knew it was the place where even more of their lives would be stripped away, while they endured remonstrations for their poor attitude.
My mother, stepmother, sister, and father all died at home. They were lucky enough to die of fairly acute illnesses at a time when they either had partners still living or, in my father's case, as the survivor, could afford some live-in help toward the end. He initially resisted bringing in live-in help, as I would later learn would be the case for every elderly relative in whose affairs I tried to intervene. My aunt might have been able to stay at home in East Texas if she had been willing to consider it. My mother-in-law resists the idea today. I'm used to the reaction by now: a visceral dislike of having strangers come into the home. It's not a reaction I would have guessed. I suppose I always thought of it as something like the luxury of having a butler or a ladies' maid. It worked out wonderfully for my father. It beats by miles having to answer to an institutional staff who work, in effect, for a landlord you can't get rid of. If I survive my husband I'll certainly budget ahead of time for as much live-in help as I can afford.
My cousin seems pleased with the idea of using the assisting-living facility chapel for my aunt's memorial service, and has scheduled it for a little over a month from now, when a lot of the family will happen to be in town for other reasons. It was kind of the facility to offer the chapel, of course, and I suspect the assisted-living facility has as pleasant associations for my cousin as it had dreadful ones for my aunt (and now has for me). It was a nice place, as such places go, but it was a dehumanizing institution nevertheless. There was a ten-year battle between my cousin and my aunt over whether my aunt would fall in line with the conventional wisdom that it was a fine place and she was lucky to be there. My aunt was prepared to go so far as to admit it was necessary, a place to be endured with as much grace as possible, but she strongly resisted pretending anything beyond that -- a stubbornness that led to ten years of strained relations and accusations of ingratitude. The decision to have a memorial service there strikes my suspicious heart as the final salvo in that ten-year battle: "See! It really is nice here!" So I have a little over a month to prepare to be gracious in a venue that makes me want to climb the walls. I'm practicing all the Miss Manners lines, like "You're very kind to say so" and "Will you please excuse me?"