How to Bury Your Mother

by Deborah Rose O’Neal

The beginning of the story is that your mother is your mother forever and ever from the moment of your birth onward.

But the beginning of this story is that my mother died.

Died. There is a brutality to that word. The single syllable. So final, so absolutely non-negotiable.

The current polite phrase is “passed away.” Although she was 98 years old, stricken with arthritis and gnawed at by several small strokes, my mother did not “pass away.” Am I wrong in assuming that the next phase after “passing away” is “vanishing?” Neither did my mother vanish.

First of all, “vanish” is too ethereal, too gentle, too passive for my mother. More important though, she is still around. She shadows us — her children and grandchildren — in our thoughts and memories, our dreams and our daily habits. She lives on.

She came to an end. She is still here.

There is a great infinity to that state.

Yet, as finite humans, we crave a final ceremony.

To honor her, bury her and mark an end.

On the way to the cemetery I find myself wondering which part of the service might make me vulnerable to tears. I‘m not feeling sentimental, but sometimes a phrase, a memory, a stray thought can “set off the waterworks.” (My late father’s phrase. Yeah, I’m tearing up a little at that.)

I exit the car to a rush of friends from as far back as elementary school, now grandparents themselves, and am instantly too busy to think about tears. In fact, it begins to dawn on my brother, sister and me that we are the ones on call. We are the only ones who can be consulted for Hebrew names and graduation dates, the ones who can decide to begin the service, name the pallbearers. We are up now.

The decision about pallbearers comes to me. Six strong guys are needed to carry the coffin from the hearse a short distance to the gravesite.

I have three sons and one brother who fit the bill. Our older brother has failed to take even the first step of the thousand mile journey, so we are two pallbearers shy.

I ask an old friend who (wisely, I think) declines, and then, BAM! A thought that would’ve made my mother proud:

“So who says it has to be only men?” And then: “Come on, how “strong” do you actually have to be?”

A son or grandson is standing at each corner. There are two spaces open in the middle. My sister agrees with a quick nod, and in a hot flash, there we are, gripping the supporting pole on either side of the casket.

Woo-hoo! We’ve come a long way, baby!

Uh oh. The casket is actually pretty heavy. I have to shift my grip a couple of times to feel even sort of secure. Surprisingly heavy.

But then, it is my mother. I shouldn’t have expected it to be light or easy or cooperative. It is heavy and bulky and unruly in an indirect way.

I struggle with the grip, but I am holding my own.

In fact, I am doing well.

I am carrying my mother up to and into her grave. It is intensely primitive, blunt, physical. And also organic and real and exactly the right thing to be doing. Along with my sons, my brother and my sister, we raise her up and lower her down. Sharing the weight of responsibility and the oppression of sadness, so that it is bearable for all.

Being one of my mother’s pallbearers made me an integral part of the ceremony that marked her physical death. It is a task I highly recommend to anyone close to the deceased. Man or woman, young or old. Not exceptionally or even especially strong. But willing.

I have started on the process of transitioning to a world that does not contain my mother. A world where I’m up next.

Better get going…

— Deborah Rose O’Neal