You’ve heard about the marching Dixieland Jazz funeral that starts with a walking, mournful dirge down New Orleans’ streets and concludes with a jubilant interpretation of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” or “When the Saints Go Marching In.” This funeral for New Orleans tuba player Kerwin James in 2007 has an elevated casket swing and dance sequence that would give any New York funeral director I know a massive heart attack. Everyone up here thinks “liability.” You’ll be touched by it though. Here also, for your betterment and listening pleasure, is a full, fabulous CD of funeral Dixieland jazz.
Here’s a wonderful history of the playing of “Taps,” tracing its roots way back to before 1862 when it became the official final bugle call of every active-duty soldier’s evening. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh. At most American military cemeteries today, where scores of vets might be buried daily, “Taps” is–believe it or not–automated. Yes, it is faked by a uniformed player holding the bugle to his lips (something akin to Beyonce’s excellent lip-syncing at Barack Obama’s second inauguration.). This isn’t as awful or as disappointing as it would seem. The sound quality is decent, and most of the mourners are staring at the flag-drapped casket anyway as they ponder this awe-inspiring soldier’s lullaby, now recognized as every American soldier’s ballad all around the world.
One tip: Ask all elderly vets in your family where their military discharge papers are because you don’t want to be searching through file cabinets in the hours after their deaths, or having phone conversations with military cemetery personnel that sound like this: “I don’t know his entry date. I’ve looked everywhere. He served in Korea…” Even if you consider yourself a non-militaristic sort of person, do not deprive yourself and your family of the beauty and the substantial savings of military burial. Here’s the official explanation of which vets are eligible. Those who have served since 1980, must have stayed in for at least 24 continuous months.
Here’s Norah Jones at piano singing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” at Steve Jobs’ memorial service, October 2011.
The Connecticut Casket Company makes wonderful things to support green burial. I felt privileged to spend a weekend with one of their nicest pieces of carpentry as I helped Mary Woodsen man the Green Burial Council‘s booth at an Earth Day festival in New York. It’s an all-pegged pine and walnut casket with highly reliable handles that would retail for about $1500.
Be kind to musicians. Or just be one. Because musicians can alter their surroundings, and turn pain into inspiration. They also tend to have the most inspired funerals. When Irish music pianist and retired IBM executive Felix Dolan, the father of my friend Phelim, died April 9, 2013, in Scarsdale, NY, at the age of 76, his friends in the Irish music world lamented his passing, and articulated his contributions–online at first, and then at the funeral, two days later, as you’ll see here. As more musicians strode to the front of the sanctuary, tugged off their coats, and sat down to play, the monsignor whispered to the altar boys, “This is one funeral you’ll never forget.”
This weeping young lady named Leah is my hero. Listen to her play “Wind Beneath My Wings” at her Aunt Elaine’s funeral.
“It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not
die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the
window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not
dead; he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor
Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could
easily tell the names under which they go.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson
This splendid casket is custom made by the Australian company LifeArt and will soon be available in the United States. You could conceivably make your own rendition on a plain pine box or cardboard casket with enlarged, black-and-white photocopies of family photographs decoupaged in a similar pattern. How amazing would that be?
Of course, Frank Sinatra owns the song “My Way,” but one’s imagination is stirred by this rendition without the lyrics. Almost any local violinist could be asked to play the ballad sweetly and thoughtfully–to great effect. Have a listen.
I tried to dry some rose petals recently on my own and they curled up into almost nothing. Clearly, freeze drying is the way to go, but who’s going to do all that in the days prior to a funeral service? FlyBoyNaturals.com supplies an assortment of lilac, peony, hydrangea, and rose petals, all freeze-dried to hold their vivid hues. Sixteen to thirty-four gorgeous tosses for $49.99. They flutter nicely, with a little spin to them, at the grave on a casket, or your funeral director can help you incorporate them into a seaside ash scattering ceremony.
Remember when Elvis sang, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You?” I fell hard for this beautiful, tall wood and porcelain urn which I spied from across the room this past week in the Kelco Supply Company’s booth at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association‘s annual convention in Las Vegas. It’s on its way to our Brooklyn showroom.
I wanted to show you Mayor Ed Koch’s casket, in case you missed it in the press coverage of a couple of months ago. It’s a solid oak casket with no handles, nails or hardware. Pegged at the joints. Biodegradable all the way but not inexpensive, by any means; a choice that shows how a powerful Jewish man can salute the unfinished pine box, stay loosely allied to the humble burial laws of his faith while still appearing, in death, a tad formidable. Some folks might have craved a darker stain or polyurethane sheen. Others might have insisted unfinished pine was the most observant Jewish option. But this selection seems an effort to please everybody, and an intriguing way to go.
“As pilgrims unite and separate at a public inn, so also fathers, mothers, sons, brothers, wives, relations unite and separate in this world. He who thus understands the nature of the body and all human relationships based upon it will derive strength to bear the loss of our dear ones. In Divine plan, one day each union must end with separation.”
–from The Mahabharata, a Hindu text.
We all try to leave a mark in this world. And while these photographs of my first floor staircase have nothing to do with funerals or funeral planning, they do say a little about me, so I thought I’d include them here.
I am an enormous admirer of Vanessa Bell’s country house, Charleston. She was the writer Virginia Woolf’s sister, of course, and she painted the walls and doorways of her home with her lifelong friend Duncan Grant. Gosh, I always thought, I’d like to be that uninhibited, that free. Then, as I approached the age of fifty, I thought, to hell with this, it’s now or never. I’m just going to start! So I started. And I painted these stairs that lead upstairs from my narrow 1911 home’s first floor.
Here’s a larger view. I stenciled the checkerboard part, and painted the rest freehand with Benjamin Moore sample jars. Are you leaving a mark on your world? Share it with me.
Here’s a marvelous web page where people struggle to interpret Leonard Cohen’s mystical song “Hallelujah.” If you love the ballad, you’ll feel for these folks trying to tackle the nearly impossible. If you don’t know the song, here’s Jeff Buckley’s rendition, here’s Rufus Wainwright’s version, K.D. Lang’s nice effort, and finally Leonard Cohen singing it himself.