My Mom Planned Her Own Funeral, & It Was The Best Gift She Ever Gave Me

Illustrated by: Tristan Offit
It was a typical cold and dreary February day in Indiana, with only a slight gray light coming in from the church skylight above where I sat in the front row. My father was on my right, and my three siblings were lined up to my left. Our mother, whose coffin now occupied the church’s center aisle, lay in front. One of her closest friends stood at the microphone, doing a reading from the Bible.

It sounds cliché to say I couldn’t focus on the fact that I was at my mom’s funeral, but my mind seemed to be ardently denying the reality of the situation. My thoughts raced between friends, work, anything outside of this moment — the sad resolution of my mother’s years-long battle with colon cancer — until these words snapped me back into the present, taking my breath away in the process. “Don’t worry about your hair. Don’t worry about your clothes. Worry about your spirit.” Suddenly, I felt like my mother was speaking directly to me.

In fact, each time someone approached the podium to give a reading that day, I was met with this same feeling of surprise — though I should have expected the diligent attention to detail. Once I’d told a friend, “My mom could work for Martha Stewart.” Then I reconsidered: “No, my mom could be Martha Stewart.” And as it happened, months prior to this day, in one of my mom's final creative acts, she had assembled her funeral plans into a file folder and delivered them to the church secretary.

To some, the idea of a loved one planning her own funeral might feel morbid or depressing. This is only possible, of course, when that person knows she is dying, like so many cancer patients do. But to me, it isn’t morbid at all. This was my mother’s final gift to me, my Dad, and my siblings, and it was beyond perfect, even for her, a stay-at-home mom who devoted her life to making and doing everything for my siblings and me.

She gave birth to me a week after she graduated from college, and had another two daughters and a son in the 14 years following. When I was little, she made me shiny dresses in satin and taffeta to wear in family weddings. She planned a blowout party for each of us kids on our First Communions. Every night, dinner was homemade, and we ate it together. Our home was always clean, pretty, and new, as she made and remade curtains, furniture, and crafts to suit her current tastes. My siblings and I always had what we needed, often at the expense of what she’d have liked to have for herself.

Four years prior, when her illness was correctly diagnosed for the first time, I moved home to help take care of her. What followed was years of driving her to and from appointments, making lunches I hoped she could keep down, exhorting her to stay hydrated after chemo treatments and to avoid wearing herself out by pretending she could do all the things she did when she was healthy. As much as I could, I took her jobs away from her: cooking for the family, looking after my youngest sister, straightening the house. But I always did these tasks according to her clear, detailed instructions.

I was first in the line to pick my sister up from school. Sandwich bread was always toasted. Tea was brewed with filtered water, and sent back if I’d forgotten and used the tap. In the last few months of her life, I frequently helped her into the colorful floral sweater she preferred to wear when she had company, and welcomed a steady stream of guests, offering them tea, coffee, or a pastry. I did these things well, if not with the same crisp-cornered perfection that my mother demanded of her own projects.

I often felt frustrated that she had to give orders instead of accepting my help as it was offered, especially as she lost her ability to do these things for herself. However, I learned that she valued all the time and effort I gave to her. Shortly after we learned her cancer had spread to her brain and she declined treatment, a family friend asked how she was feeling. My mother replied, “I’m glad Rachel’s here. I feel safe.” For me, it was the peak of our relationship to hear that she trusted me in her scariest moments. I was committed to being there with her until the end.
Illustrated by: Tristan Offit
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Though I spent a lot of time with my mom in the last years of her life, my sister had been the one to help her with funeral planning. I’d noticed a hymn book on the desk in her bedroom, and eventually there was a file folder on top of it. After they dropped it off, my sister told me that the church secretary had been taken aback by her plan’s level of detail and organization.

Maybe some cancer patients jot down a couple song titles or readings that they’d like their mourners to hear. Most probably trust their families to do the planning. My mom, however, provided her own copies of all readings and songs, in the order they would be needed for the service, and instructions as to which family member or friend was to give each reading.

I didn’t want to ask about what she’d chosen. I’d been to enough Catholic funeral Masses to know what to expect, and I didn’t think ahead much to the day she’d be gone, though I’d tried (and very obviously failed) for years to keep that day from coming. She was already so far from herself — she spent most of the day in bed, and she was so thin that when she did get up and around it looked like an empty pair of pants was walking across the room. A funeral almost seemed irrelevant. The mother I’d grown up with was already gone.

A couple years after the funeral, in my own house, where the curtain rods are slightly crooked because she wasn’t here to help me hang them, I took the time to revisit the first passage about appearances that forced me to attention. It’s chapter six of the Gospel of Matthew. It covers much more than I remembered, and the language of the scripture quotes is more formal than it sounded to me in the church that day. "I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?" The chapter is basically a rapid-fire list of ways to be a good person and please God. I know the prayer-and-pleasing-God aspect of the passage was important to my mom, but I also know this was chosen as a set of guidelines for creating a worthwhile life. In less than 800 words, it gives instructions for charitable giving, staying humble, the power of forgiveness, and not being materialistic.

For as long as I can remember, friends said “That’s your mom?” when they met her for the first time. She had a beautiful face and looked about a decade younger than she was — and, like everything else in her life, this was not by accident. I knew that she’d put plenty of time and care into her appearance, yet this new message from her continues to ring true. Her final years of suffering had taught both of us that what we are on the surface is nothing if we are not doing good things for other people.

***
As her life came closer to its end, I began to appreciate my siblings more than ever. If I couldn’t have my mother in my life, I’d get to have these three people who were so much like her. For some reason, I never remembered to say it during the hours I sat at her bedside, so I tapped out a text message on my phone while walking up the stairs to my apartment one day. “I’ve been meaning to tell you thank you for the siblings.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied.

My mother made sure to remind me of the people she left me with when, midway through the service, a familiar tune began to play. This is "All the Hands of the Earth," I thought, on the verge of inappropriate hysterical laughter.

My youngest sister, who is the darling of my family, was born when I was 14. When she was about 4 years old, our church often played a song called "All the Ends of the Earth." She would stand on a kneeler and sway, perfectly coiffed, dressed up like a doll, singing, "All the hands of the earth have seeeen the power of God. All the hands of the earth have seeeen the power of God.”

Alone or in small groups on a regular Sunday, or on holidays when all six of us were together, we would sing my sister’s version and laugh. She picked this song, I thought to myself. I tried to catch the eye of my dad or sister on either side of me, but they were looking straight ahead, probably thinking of the horde of people behind us who weren’t in on the joke. They were not going to acknowledge me. I settled back in the pew, determined to enjoy the joke. And I did.

I remembered the scene we’d lived so many times, Mom and I glancing at each other and enjoying our family in-joke as the people around us sang the boring, regular words. She would bend over and look my little sister in the eye, singing the revised version along with her, eyebrows up, smile wide, shoulders swaying.

In that moment I became aware that everything was okay. She hadn’t just given me a family — she gave me the assurance that our family would still be the same, even if we were down a member.

Once we were alone in the car that would drive us to the cemetery, I said, "I cannot believe Mom picked 'All the Hands of the Earth!'" Next to me, Dad smiled, and my siblings laughed in the seat behind us. The driver put the car in gear and we rolled out of the parking lot.
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.

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