If I should die before I ‘wake
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my Soul to keep,
If I should die before I ‘wake,
I pray the Lord my Soul to take
Strangely, in my childhood in the 1950’s, I was taught this child’s prayer. The prayer haunted me throughout my youth. I wondered what it would be like to die in my sleep. More worrisome was the image of someone ‘taking’ my soul.
Even as a child, I had a sense that “my soul” is somehow my essence or who I am as a living being. But soul snatching? Who or what would do such a thing? If the Lord didn’t take my soul, who or what would? If my essence could be taken, where would I end up? And this was well before the spate of zombie movies where theatres full of people would tremble as armies of the undead reaped havoc on ordinary American citizens who had spent their lives safely watching ‘Leave It To Beaver and Archie & Edith Bunker.
The form of the prayer first appeared in the 17th century colonial school books and was attributed to Joseph Addison in his popular essay in The Spectator on March 8, 1711. But somewhere long before the prayer made its way into the bedtime tradition in my childhood, religious leaders should have sounded the alarm.
Even moderately enlightened clergy of the 1950’s should have scoffed at the notion of soul snatching — especially abducting souls of sleeping children. And if there was thought to be cosmic competitive gamesmanship operating between the forces of good and evil, why inflict that anxiety on a child just before they are drifting off to sleep? “If God and the Devil wrestle for my eternal soul, let’s hope God wins! And if God wins, where would God put my soul after a sweaty and perhaps bloody contest for it? Suppose God loses?
Well, enough with the macabre child’s prayer. It’s miserable theology. It is horrible psychological rubble and fortunately, the verse has fallen into disuse. Yet if we die, in our sleep or we get hit by a Big Blue Bus when we are crossing Wilshire Blvd., what happens then?
By now, we have come to some claptrap amalgamation of strained metaphysical, philosophical and threadbare religious imaginings of what happens to us after we die. Such presuppositions of afterlife exceed the parameters of this article. I suggest a narrowing of the topic. How should we dispose of our physical bodies after we die?
Since the publication of The High Cost of Dying, and many other works like it, the American funeral industry has been put on notice for its dishonesty and predatory practices. As most of us struggle with the emotional, social and financial challenges of death, we feel inadequate about our demise. That’s true whether we are thinking about our own or the death of someone we love. Even binge watching all five seasons of HBO’s Six Feet Under doesn’t help.
Fortunately, wisdom, compassion and common sense have prevailed in a fragment of funeral directors and legislators on practices dealing with death. We no longer are required to have bodies embalmed. Families simply don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on caskets, burial and grave expenses. There are many dignified and respectful ways to commemorate the life of a loved one without spending thousands of dollars on a person’s physical remains.
“But wait!” you might say with some anguish. “How am I supposed to go about dealing with the final care of the death of a loved one? It’s gruesome enough to think about it. If I had to handle it for a deceased loved one, or even try to prepare for my own death, where would I start?
- Start With Yourself. The first place to begin dealing with the brevity of life is in your own thinking. Ask yourself these questions:
A. Is there really any question about the fact that you will someday die?
B. Though you’ll never know when or how you’ll die, who will likely be forced to deal with the disposition of your (or your loved one’s) body?
C. If you knew you were going to move to another city, you wouldn’t simply vacate your apartment or home, expecting a crew to magically come in and clean up your dwelling. If you would be responsible in cleaning up after you move away from your home, why not be as responsible with your body? If you are sure that someday you will no longer inhabit the earthly shell of your body, why not save your loved ones some anguish and money?
The first and the greatest challenge of preparing for death is facing the inevitability of our own death. Each of us know of the brevity of life so why not put a little project management and empathy into it. We can make it easier for the people around us when we die.
2. Funeral Consumers Alliance You could spend days and weeks reading the literature on the gross and burdensome horrors of the American funeral industry. Better yet, begin to take in the advice and counseling of the Funeral Consumers Alliance found at http://funerals.org. This not-for-profit organization is made up of funeral home professionals whose mission is to help us be more prepared in planning funerals for ourselves or our loved ones. They’ve carefully outlined the steps for planning a funeral. Planning with your loved ones is obviously best done in advance of a death but believe me, it is tremendously easier to plan things ahead of time than to work through the decisions at the time of a death.
During the last decade in the wonderful life of an aged relative, she spent an inordinate amount of her life in doctor’s offices, hospitals and finally nursing homes. But during her final weeks of what was left of her life, we planned for the inevitable. With the help of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, we found a local funeral home and arranged for a direct cremation. We also arranged for a memorial service which celebrated the many positive things of her life. We scheduled the service when it was convenient for those who had to make travel plans. We also interred her ashes in a meaningful location.
By pre-planning this funeral, we were able to avoid so many unnecessary, costly and cumbersome funeral traditions. We only enacted the ceremonies and customs we wanted. We did not have any of the unnecessary encumbrances that so often deepen the sadness of death.
I thought, if we could do this pre-planning for our well-aged loved one, who was approaching her 100 years on this earth, what is to keep us from pre-planning our own exit — well in advance of our death?
3. http://Funerals.org is a helpful website to begin your research. On the website, locate the “Find A Local FCA Group” tab. It will take you to a map of the states where you can click on the relevant state. If you find a relatively local funeral home, you can click on the “Visit Website” button and it should show you some of the area’s affiliated groups.
This Alliance is a volunteer organization so you may have to keep trying different links. Use different browsers and pursue email links. In this research, be sure to use the search term “Direct Cremation” and keep an eye out for “Funeral Consumers Alliance” or “FCA” in your search. With cremation, you don’t have to use a funeral home that is around the corner because you likely don’t need to have a traditional funeral home service to celebrate your loved one’s life.
Here are the overall tasks:
A. Disposition of the body (cremation)
B. Arrange with a clergy or other professional to conduct a memorial service to honor the deceased
C. Eventually, decide what you will do to store or disperse the ashes. After her husband’s death, a long-time friend asked us to take her to a lake shore where she and her husband had spent time together. As we read one of her favorite passages, we gently tossed the ashes into the water.
Find the funeral directors who quote a fixed price for cremation. In most cases, no financial deposit is required. You or a loved one just pay for the cremation whenever it occurs. The aim is to get the planning out of the way, even if it will not be needed for decades from now.
Keep in mind that the Funeral Consumers Alliance organization is all volunteer. Even though they are professionally certified and experienced funeral directors, their mission is to help you do the difficult work of planning a funeral for a loved one. They are not in it to make money from your grief. Their website is not, by any means, an exhaustive listing of every funeral home affiliated with the FCA. Use the internet to find a trustworthy cremation service.
4. Getting It done.
The experience in planning the final care of our loved one taught me that I owe it to my spouse and daughter to save a lot of the anguish at the time of my death. I used the Funeral Consumers Alliance to find six funeral home organizations in our area. After I called and spoke with each one, I chose the one that seemed most accessible and professional.
I completed the paperwork and formed a relationship with the funeral home willing to handle the direct cremation for whenever it is that I die. All of the funeral homes were familiar with handling a direct cremation arrangement. This is by no means a flaky, new-age arrangement. It is the direction most funeral planning is headed.
This task for me is now completed and will someday save my loved ones a lot of unnecessary hardship. For years, I had made my own business cards using Avery 8371 Business Card paper. This time, I made a business card containing all of the contact information of the funeral home. My wife and I keep it in our wallets.
Our daughter wouldn’t want to carry around a business card with this information. She is an avid user of Microsoft Outlook so I sent her a copy of the contact information with a separate text of information that she can paste into the contact “notes” field.
When you think of the expanse of a lifetime, consider that this task of managing a funeral is a very small part of it. Doing so is a meaningful but intense exercise but we tend to put it off. That’s because life embodies so much beauty, joy and they many positive relationships awaiting us. Planning this final piece of life’s experience frees us up all for the things we love about life.
Return, then, to the iambic pentameter children’s 1700’s prayer. I propose one final rewrite:
… and if I die before I wake, cremate me, the rest, please take.