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What It Feels Like to Plan Your Funeral With Terminal Cancer

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“You’ll live to dance another day,
It’s just now you’ll have to dance, for the two of us,
So stop looking so damn depressed
And sing with all your heart that the Queen is dead”
– Frank Turner, “Long Live the Queen”

I toured the cemetery in a Death Cab for Cutie t-shirt and a set of pigtail braids.

No, not the main area with multiple headstones cloistered together. I toured the “new” area, which looked far more like a field or a vacant lot than just a cemetery. It’s easy to miss the sign identifying what this ground is intended to be used for. In the center, a community scattering ground for cremated ashes with one semi-large monument in the middle. At first, that would seem to be the only thing here, but a walk through the grassy, weeded grounds reveal perhaps a dozen more stones and rocks spaced out; each commemorating the life of a loved one who has died in the past two years.

This area is simple and quiet, with an understated and almost semi-private feel. It reinforces the feeling that the space is “a little secret” between those in the ground and those who are seeking them out for a visit. I imagine the few who reside here whispering softly to each other, underfoot of visitors. I wander and glance at the stones of my future neighbors. A 38-year-old man, also gone before his time; a 70-year-old beloved “wife, mother, and grandmother…”

The younger man is just a couple of years younger than I am. His stone has rocks and shells around it, which no doubt meant something special to to him or to his family. I think about my son, and how much he would love to decorate the area around my name stone with some shells and rocks he collected. Perusing them, I decide that I like my future company, and my fellow fertilizers for this field.

The “new” area is reserved for people who have decided they wish to have a natural burial. One that is free of formaldehyde and other environmentally-harmful chemicals. One that substitutes a heavy, closed casket for a quiet shroud. The idea is to let us decompose. To become food for worms, and to allow us to help grow these grasses and weeds that lie above us.

It wasn’t until I learned about the idea of a “natural burial,” as a viable option that I found tranquility of mind with today’s modern post-death practices. I mean, they are really quite disturbing when you think about them. I don’t want someone manipulating my body and pumping it full of chemicals in order to set it up for a “pretty” viewing. I want people to remember me as the “me” they knew me as when I alive. No last images of Heather on display like some wax museum imposter overdone version of her former self are necessary.

The other major alternative (cremation) is no less disarming to me. This is not like the cremation ceremony of old, where I am nobly placed on a boat, then alighted with a fire arrow on my way out to sea. Nope! Today’s cremation is literally just a slapping of my naked corpse and toe tag on a cold metal conveyer and rolled into an inferno. Product in, product out, all in another day’s work. No thank you. Uh uh. Not at all.

But a natural burial? This is a simplicity I will take. Just clean me, cover me in a shroud and give me a respectful burial. Please place a small stone to mark the location and to remember me by, and then give me my literal opportunity to “push up daisies.” I will take that. Humans were meant to decompose, just like all of the other animals. And just like them, we were meant to give our nutrients back to the earth, instead of poisoning it further with chemicals.

I can picture my family visiting me here in this understated lot, perhaps near the shade. I can see my daughter planting flowers. This lot is just a block and a turn away from downtown Yellow Springs, the hippie capital of southwest Ohio. I wonder if, when they visit, they will stop by the iconic pizza joint nearby or some other local establishment to help support it, perhaps while sharing some memories of me.

These visions of the future haven’t always been so peaceful. For the longest time, they filled me only with a deep, deep sorrow. Resentment over having to even make these plans in my early 40s. Mourning over the irreplaceable loss of not getting to stay here with my family. Frank Turner is one of my favorite musical artists of all time, but that still didn’t stop me from avoiding his song, “Long Live the Queen” for the longest time, because it was about saying goodbye to and celebrating the life of a friend of his who had also died young of a long sickness. I just wasn’t ready to process my own death in such a celebratory manner. Not quite yet. But over the past year or so, I have been doing the hard work. The inside work. So today? I allow the visions to come.

Stage IV colon cancer. The same disease that Chadwick Boseman died of. And at almost exactly the same age. That shocking diagnosis when it hits you, and then the cancer metastasizes. And then you are faced with a death sentence rolling toward you at a far quicker rate than you could ever imagine. You run through all of the phases. Why did this happen to me? What do you mean it’s incurable? The shock that technology hadn’t advanced enough by this point to present more lines of chemo and with it a longer prognosis (as is the case with metastatic breast cancer).

In my darkest moments, I question whether my inner work has been successful. But in moments like yesterday and today, I am able to know that it has. To seek out and to stare directly into the eyes of the lives that will live beyond yourself takes a level of awareness that few are forced to grasp until they are very old. Taking a walk past your future consciousnesses and finding peace instead of anguish there, is quite a remarkable thing.

What I have found is that not only am I able to do this now, I need to do it. I need to face the reality that I am most likely within my last six months and possibly sooner. Since my decline might begin at any time, I need to make sure my husband knows what my wishes are so he does not get stuck having to make these decisions at a later time. I need to take care of this now, so when I pass away later he needs only to pick up the phone and call the funeral home to take care of everything else.

This realization has opened the door and allowed me to finally have some of those other big discussions, which I was previously unable to handle. Discussions of what my wishes are for my family after I am gone. It’s not lost on me that there will likely be 40 years of life remaining for my husband after I pass. Do we plan for him to be interred next to me? What if he finds somebody else?

While I won’t disclose everything spoken of, I did let him know that I am OK with that (moving on) if some day he chooses to. We both agreed that he wants to continue to raise our children as we would have raised them together, and I trust he will do that with every ounce of my being. But there is more to it than just that. I am asking him to not take those moments for granted. I want him to see them for me too. I want him to celebrate the milestones with me. I want him to dance for one more of us.

It was then that he finally told me what he wanted to do with the payout from my life insurance policy. We had each purchased term life insurance so inexpensively several years ago, when both of us were the image of healthiness. We never imagined then that we’d actually ever use it. He wants to use it to buy that property by or on a lake. The one we had always wanted to buy together. The house that we would bring our children on vacation to. The house that our grandchildren would happily come visit us at when we got older.

No sight fills me with joy more than the sight of my children and my family having fun. And I have visions of it now. In my mind, I can clearly see them there. Spending time with each other and creating so many new memories with each other. Memories of love and memories of laughter. I see future grandchildren dancing around and filling Abe’s heart and home with love as he grows older. Maybe a tree can be planted there in my memory that can grow older too.

It was our dream. I was supposed to be in those future memories. But now it must be theirs. At an earlier phase of my mourning, I would have focused on the dejection of being cut out of that dream. But today no other thought could fill me with a greater harmony or pleasure. It will not just be a gathering place for them. It can be family legacy. A better legacy than the kind passed to me. A legacy that I created. And as these years spin into decades, you will also find me spinning, as the dance is carried forward for just one more of us.

Photo by Nathan Jefferis on Unsplash

Originally published: October 16, 2020
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