Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing is certain—This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
— The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayam of Naishapur
My father and mother had been married for over fifty years, and when her life force was defeated by cancer, my father, whose health was failing, apparently made a conscious decision not to go on without her. He had a very strong mind, and it is very likely he willed his heart to stop beating.
It was then my sister Jean and I were faced with an ethical dilemma. He and my mother had wanted their bodies to be cremated because they did not believe in unnecessarily taking up space in the earth. However, Dad’s two surviving sisters insisted we ship the corpse to Illinois so they could have “proper services” and an open-casket funeral. They sent train tickets for Jean, myself, and the shipping casket.
We foolishly acquiesced.
Since Jean and I wanted no part of a macabre ceremony or of looking at the corpse, we refused to attend the services. Aunts Dora and Doris were horrified. I naively thought I could get through to them by saying, “The Bible says, ‘Let the dead bury the dead.’ Dad would not have wanted us to ritualize death with eulogies, dirges, incantations, and people who weep only because they are reminded of their own mortality.” But their minds had already slammed shut.
“Don’t you want to pay your last respects to your father?” one of them asked accusingly, using a simplistic phrase I’ve never been able to understand.
“That would be impossible,” I said, “because our father no longer exists. We will respect his memory by always trying to adhere to the values he taught us, but to venerate his corpse would be to demean his entire life.”
“But he’s lying in state at the funeral home!”
“Not our father, but only the body he once occupied,” Jean said.
We tried to explain to them that the corpse was not our dad. He was not his physical body. He was his mind, his character, his personality. He was the sum of the knowledge and wisdom he had accumulated over seventy-nine years. He was his experiences and memories, his joys and sorrows, his victories and defeats, his dreams, his sense of humor, and his love for our mother and for us, his children. But all of these qualities are abstract and nonphysical. They are simply labels for various functions of the brain, and when the brain dies, these qualities must necessarily cease to be. Our father was nonexistent, and what was left was nothing but an old and shriveled carcass.
We neither loved nor respected our father’s body. We loved and respected him—the person that he’d been. The quintessential man. The man who was no more.
“But what about his immortal soul?”
We resisted the impulse to explain that from a logical and scientific standpoint, the soul is nothing but a theological abstraction, and its “existence” is entirely dependent on the tangibility of a living brain.
What happens to the vibrant flame of a person when death blows out the candle? The flame—the person’s true essence—doesn’t go to heaven, hell, nirvana, Valhalla, or any other fabled never-never land. It vanishes forever into nothingness. No one ever really dies. They just cease to exist.
But our aunts could not understand this and we knew an explication would be futile. They were shocked and appalled by our attitude. To make them happy, we could have gone to the services. We could have tried to close our minds to the fact that we were taking part in a ritual that was more than just senseless and irrational—it was primitive and barbaric. What real harm would have resulted from our shelving our convictions for just one day?
We vacillated briefly, and then one of the aunts made up our minds for us by saying, “But if you don’t go, what will the neighbors say?”
I started to say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give . . .” but Jean cut me off with as diplomatic a response as she could muster.
Our relationship with our aunts was never quite the same after that. But it was all right. The way we felt about ourselves was more important to us than the way our aunts and their neighbors felt about us.
In 1997, the final curtain of my wife’s life fell when her flame was extinguished. My two sons and I had no services of any kind for the corpse. There were no flowers, casket, tombstone, or urn. Just cremation. And tears. The money we would have spent on a funeral, casket, and burial was sent to her favorite charity: the United Nations Children’s Fund. She most assuredly would have approved of helping needy children rather than a rapacious undertaker.
Her father, a minister, thought we were unforgivably cruel and ungodly not to have shipped the corpse to Texas for funeral services. I didn’t try to explain to him how we felt. I told him only that a once beautiful body had been mutilated, and we certainly did not want anyone paying homage to cancer’s atrocity.
No member of her family has had anything to do with us from that day to this. It was a trade-off—the loss of in-laws for the preservation of the sanctity of her wishes and her memory. The boys and I came out ahead.
Early in our thirty-seven-year marriage, I asked my wife if she believed in an afterlife. She laughed and said that no one was so remarkably important that the universe could not get along very nicely without them, and she thought belief in an afterlife is the absolute height of egomania. She and my father were happy people who made a lot of people’s lives a little better, and once around was quite enough for them. Their joy was the only reward they ever wanted.
Shortly before he was no more, my Dad gave me a small piece of paper. In a way, it was his epitaph. Because it accurately reflects his outlook on life, I am certain he may have written it. My wife treasured it so much she had it made into a plaque.
What delightful hosts they are—Love and Laughter!
Lingeringly I turn away at this late hour, yet glad
They have not withheld from me their high hospitality.
So at the door I pause to press their hands just once more
And say, “So fine a time! Thank you both . . . and goodbye.”
Don Lowry became a nonbeliever at the age of sixteen. He is the author of stories, books, and plays and is the creator of Lodestar, a drug and alcohol prevention program for elementary and secondary-school students.