Two days after Christmas, six years ago, my daughters and I traveled home to Vermont, to ring in the New Year with my parents. We settled into the cabin up the hill from their house and went down to say hello before bed. Dad was stretched out in a recliner in front of the fireplace. He’d been diagnosed with bone cancer about a year before, but he was doing well. He wasn’t in real pain, any more than the usual pains of a man who’d lived hard all his life, a man with lousy knees and stents in his heart, who’d tracked mountain lions in the Great West, split thousands of cords of wood, worked as a farmer and a firefighter, among other things, and had finally written, on a scrap of paper I found after he died, “My time is the only capital contribution I can make.”
I’d brought him a Christmas present. A tin of mulling spices. He seemed grateful, even though it was a nothing gift. “Open it,” I said, helping him pry the lid off. When he got to the check inside, his face lit up. “Aren’t you wonderful!” He tucked it into the breast pocket of his shirt. Money was one of the things he had never gotten right in his life.
The next night I invited my parents to the cabin for dinner. It wasn’t a great meal—I made a salad and warmed up a tray of store-bought lasagna; if I’d known it was going to be his last meal, I would have made more effort.
It had begun to snow and gust. My older brother was driving north from Boston, and my father worried about him traveling in those conditions. He was anxious to get back to the main house to call him to tell him not to try to make it home that night. We’re talking rugged country, several mountainous miles by dirt road, no phone service at the cabin, no cell service at either house. We said goodnight, and my parents climbed into their car. I watched from the window as it crept down the hill and passed out of sight around the corner.
The next day I was up early making coffee, a fire, steel cut oatmeal. It was a perfect blank canvas of a morning, everything thick with snow, snow still falling. An SUV with a flashing yellow light came into view, mounting the hill to the cabin. I made out the word “Sheriff” on the front door and felt a rush of alarm. My mother stepped off the passenger side of the car. I met her at the door. She said, “I think Dad died last night.”
She actually put it just this way. He had died in his sleep sometime in the night. She didn’t know until morning. They had even snuggled before going to sleep, she said.
We huddled together, processing this new information–surprise, a solemn mood, but no tears, just things to be done. To die in one’s bed, in one’s sleep, cozy with one’s wife of almost 60 years, is a gift, even something to celebrate. There had been some dread, anticipating his final days, death by bone cancer. It had never occurred to us that he might skip that last chapter.
At the main house, a uniformed deputy sat counting prescription pills to rule out foul play. My mother led me upstairs to their bedroom to see my father lying slumped on his side of the bed. Death is quiet, the theatrics surrounding it all ours. Though there had been plenty of theatrics in my father’s life, his death was without drama.
The Undertaker arrived. On the subject of burials, my father had once said, “Dig a hole and roll me into it.” I’m quite sure he meant it, but it was deep winter, and perhaps there are laws against it or permits required. We didn’t know the first thing about death or death care, and we had never advanced the conversation beyond dark humor.
Plans unfolded naturally under the guidance of the country undertaker. My mother had one wish—for Dad’s body to be kept at home for three days. It’s her belief that the etheric body (roughly equal to the soul) is slower to take leave of the clinically dead body, and that the deceased should be kept at home and lovingly watched over during this critical time. The Undertaker said he didn’t think that would be a problem, but his body would need to be kept cold. Where did we plan to keep him?
The personalization of the process had begun, it’s one of the top trends in the death care industry: less funeral home, more home sweet home. Unless you’re handing it all over to a funeral director, there’s no ready playbook. In my parent’s home, we store the wood supply–25 cords of wood to get through the winter, much of it put up by my father–in the barn attached to the house. In the anteroom leading to the barn, there’s a woodcut print of a man standing by his woodpile, with a Henry David Thoreau quote, “Every man looks at his woodpile with a kind of affection.” We decided to keep my father in the barn, close to his woodpile. The Undertaker began to lay out our casket options, “Everything from a rough-hewn pine box fabricated at the funeral home to…” We stopped him. Dad would have considered anything more elaborate a waste.
The Undertaker and his assistant carried my father out to their waiting vehicle, discreet as professional stagehands. They would take his body back to the funeral parlor for washing and dressing. We opted out of embalming; they would simply “stabilize” him—a piece of wood in his palate, other simple measures best known to morticians, and return him to us at the end of the day. My mother chose clothes, new pants she’d given him for Christmas, his best Pendleton plaid shirt, and socks she’d knit herself. After the three-day in state period, they would return for him and transport his body to the crematorium. That date coincided with my plans, already in place, to fly home to Baltimore.
One more decision. What kind of urn for the ashes? At every step, we were guided by my father’s preference for the rustic, the practical, the natural. We opted for a cardboard box. We’d scatter the ashes at his memorial service.
It snowed all day. We made phone calls, informing the rest of the family and close friends. My sister, from afar, began to draft an obituary. We’d hold a simple memorial service at a time to be determined later, no need for everyone to rush to northern Vermont in the aftermath of the holidays.
Late in the afternoon, someone made a fire in the greenhouse woodstove and it began to smoke. At that moment, with all present in a panic trying to address the smoke situation, I felt the first real pang of missing my father who had been a magician with tricky flues and green wood and had always kept the home fires burning so snugly.
At the end of the day when they brought his body back, in blizzard conditions, it was bitterly cold. They couldn’t get the hearse up the driveway so my brother took out the tractor and they offloaded the simple pine box with his body onto the wood trailer. In the dark, in stinging snow, my brother drove the tractor as close to the barn as he could manage. Two men from the funeral parlor, my brother, my best friend Sue and I, all freezing our asses off, struggled in drifting snow to carry the pine box into the barn and place it on two waiting saw horses. No small feat.
My mother had set out candles. They pried off the top of the box and my father was there, handsome by candlelight, a dramatically reserved version of himself. My mother tucked a patchwork quilt she’d made right up to his chin. In the next three days, she went out to the barn often to see him, inviting others to go with her. At the end of the second day, he began not to look like himself anymore, frozen solid, increasingly strange.
Not so very long ago in human history, families were intimately connected with the practical tasks of death, more hands-on in the preparation of the body. Perhaps demystifying that threshold between the worlds is grounding and eases the grieving process. For me, there was something profoundly uplifting in attending to my father’s natural birth out of life.
His death always puts me in mind of Robert Frost’s Home Burial, which is a grim and sad poem, relevant only in that it recalls a time when families cared for their own dead, the narrator with dirt on his shoes from digging his child’s grave.
Back in Baltimore, people were quick to express sympathy, and I found myself eager to tell this story which had left me not with a feeling of sorrow or bitterness, but with the sweetness of having, in our own peculiar way, gotten the ending just right.