“Confessions of a Funeral Director” whaaat?

This sounds like a morbid post, but hang in with me here. This book is a memoir of sorts of 6th generation funeral director Caleb Wilde. He shares his thoughts about death, life, love, and heaven – but perhaps not in the way you might think.

If you think about it, the descent into fall is a good time to write about death. Here in Ohio, the leaves are pretty much entirely off the trees. It is cloudy and gray most days. We have to gear up for a long winter ahead of us. Luckily, we still have the excitement of the holidays ahead of us, but most of us carry the awareness that winter will keep stretching out long after that. Moreover, for many, the holidays are a painful reminder of losses and people who are not with us anymore.

This is not a book about grief exactly, though it does go there at times. It is more a book about the theology of life and death. It is for people who have ever questioned the common American Christian narrative of being saved so God won’t send you to hell, and then when you die, getting to join God up in heaven. If the thought of questioning the simplicity of that narrative makes you uncomfortable, this book is probably not for you.

Caleb himself transitioned from that narrative, which he posits is a “death-negative” narrative, to finding a more open and death-positive narrative. A narrative where our own mortality is not something to be ashamed of, associated with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, but as much a natural and necessary part of life as birth is. As with birth, through death, it is possible to find genuine love and community.

I really enjoyed many of the points he makes in his book. Through watching many grieving families and communities, Caleb has witnessed how a heart broken open by death is able to love those who are different from them. Death is a great equalizer of sorts. Caleb theologizes how the pain, openness, and vulnerability a person experiences in death and grieving is really a form of worship. He asks what kind of a God we really believe in. Is it a God immune to our sufferings, who feels no grief about loss? Is it an immovable, invulnerable God? Are we too, to be stoic and strong in the face of death? Or is God perhaps deeply connected to our sufferings, grieving with us when we are in pain, vulnerable to sorrow? We can choose to believe in either God, but one might find that believing in one of those Gods leads to a more humane existence than the other.

The challenge we must confront is how to allow death to help us live more open-hearted and full lives. No one will escape it, so how will it shape how we live? The grief and mourning we encounter through others’ death can serve to break us open to our own selves and have compassion toward others. We do not have to “get over” grief: there is no timeline for healing. Caleb suggests doing “active remembering” as a way of acknowledging that the ones who have left us physically never really leave the ones they loved.

This book is heavy at times but also surprisingly manageable, considering the subject matter. It feeds the theological mind and the griever alike. I hope it helps all of us mortals approach the lives we have with freedom, love, and compassion.

This is a book review for Speakeasy. I receive certain books for free in exchange for providing an honest review. If you have more curiosity about joining Speakeasy yourself, leave me a comment!

Other links:

Confessions on Amazon
Youtube trailer (it’s actually worth watching, I promise!)
Caleb featured on NPR’s WNYC Studios

Flowers on the Altar

Yesterday I went to the wake for my stepgrandmother. The house was crowded with family and friends celebrating my stepgrandmother “Deenie’s” 82 years of life and mourning her absence in our lives. In a book I’ve been reading (about depth psychology and pastoral counseling), an article stated that most of the parishioners the pastor encounters leave flowers on the church altar not on the death anniversary of their loved one, but on the loved one’s birthday. It is a celebration of life, not mourning your own loss. Thus, here is my own Flowers on the Altar.

My stepbrother delivered the eulogy and did a fantastic job. Deenie was an elegant and hardworking lady – comfortable hobnobbing with the oil executives as well as plucking chickens and starting campfires. She married the man who would be her best friend at the age of 17, a relationship started by a dollar bet on her being able to get a date with him within a week. They were married for over 50 years. She could make something out of seemingly nothing, and did so many times through countless moves following her husband’s work while raising their three children. She believed in all the members of her family, which made them believe in themselves.

The most striking theme to me about her life was the sense of welcome and acceptance that she exuded to everyone in her life. Whether your relation officially included a “step,” an “in-law,” or just a “boyfriend of __,” you were considered an important member of the family in her house. As the crowd shared memories of Deenie, my dad expressed to the crowd what I had been thinking. She enveloped him, my brother, and me into the family when we showed up as a husband of remarriage with an 8 and 6 year old to the family gatherings at Deenie and Papa John’s house in the Black Forest woods, and we are forever grateful. Despite having no history with these people, my 8-year-old self never felt like I was missing out on some family inside joke when I was at her house. I was simply present, and that made me family. I was startled when, at the wake, people I barely knew or actually didn’t know (having to trust my faulty memory that I don’t really know them) greeted me by name and asked about Boulder. “How do they know I live in Boulder??” I queried my stepmom. She smiled. “Deenie just talked about her grandchildren a lot!”

Aging Well is a book that’s impacted my thoughts on growing old a lot, or even just growing up. Whether you fully intend to grow old or if the thought of growing old scares you, it’s a good read. It’s about the stages of life (based off of Erickson’s stages of development, slightly expanded) that we pass through in the aging process, with a focus on adulthood. We all, in our own ways, work our way through stages of Identity, Intimacy, Career, Generativity (whether through raising your own children or somehow contributing to the next generation), Keeper of the Meaning (whether one is involved in passing on culture and values to your society), and Integrity (how one is able to face death). The book also emphasized how being in significant relationships, or “letting someone in” (to our inside selves) as the author puts it, has an important impact on one’s overall health. Deenie devoted herself to her husband and raising her family, later expanding to grandchildren and even 5 great-grandchildren. When Papa John died, her love expanded and she let others in to her heart, particularly her current adventuring partner with whom she went gallivanting all over the hemisphere. To me, Deenie is a prime example of someone who has aged well.

My stepaunt reminded us that Deenie had so much left that she wanted to do and adventures that she wanted to go on. She was not ready to go yet, but maybe because of that, she faced her last days with courage and undying optimism. Her health went so fast, and we all felt a little bewildered at what had just happened. However, in a way, it means that there is more left of her life for us to carry forward on her behalf.

My stepbrother said that Deenie’s spirit continues to live on, partially through all of us. I am pondering that in my own heart. To me, her most important characteristic was that she was welcoming and embracing. My personality is nothing like hers – she was gregarious and talkative, I’m reserved, sometimes even shy. She was a hard-core conservative, I’m… not. She dressed with pizzazz and chunky jewelry, I just try to make sure my colors match okay. But we can share values. When I die, I want to have lived the kind of life where people look back and say, “I am grateful that we knew her. She loved much, she worked hard, and we always knew that with her, our presence was welcome and we were special to her.” It’s because of models like Deenie that I can have an idea of what a life like this would look like. Thanks, Grandma Deenie, for being that lady, for welcoming us, for nurturing a family that was the kind I had longed to be a part of. I will do my best to carry you forward.

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