There was a time when judges in our area would send youthful offenders our way for an alleged lesson in their own mortality. If you were caught driving under the influence . . . or recklessly . . . or both, chances were they would require you to visit a funeral home and plan your own funeral.
Do you think any of them really took that seriously?
Answer? Nope. It was a game to them and most of the funeral directors knew it was a game and really had no desire to take up their time—time that was usually already occupied by for-real death—so they could pretend. Especially when the other party to the charade couldn’t have cared less.
Our local folks finally figured that out and the practice ceased, at least in the counties we served, but a parent called one day needing to set up such a meeting. A judge outside our area had levied the sentence and none of their local funeral homes were willing to help, for the very reasons I just outlined. But she sounded so desperate I agreed to do it and then told everyone here I would meet with them so no one else had to.
When she asked what they needed to bring I suggested clothes. I’m not sure what made me say that, but it’s something we usually mention to at-need families. It saves them a trip home and back to us when there are so many other things on which they need to be focused, and there are times they have a specific outfit in mind that may or may not work with the interior of the casket they’re contemplating. Laying the garment in the casket can help them visualize the end result and often make the final decision for them. So . . . clothes.
The mother and son arrived promptly at the appointed hour, he looking bored and angry at having to be there and she looking like she would prefer to be almost anywhere else. We went upstairs; she settled into a chair at the end of the table and I instructed him to sit closer to me. Pulling out the personal information sheets I went through the questions which, for the most part, he answered. Occasionally his mother chimed in, prompting him with responses that did not come readily to his mind.
With the initial paperwork completed, I reviewed the various price lists, telling this young man that someone would be responsible for the charges incurred. Under normal circumstances, that someone would be his parents. Did they have any insurance on him? He looked at his mother and she shook her head no. Was there a checking account in his name that might be used to assist with payment? He didn’t have to look at her for that one, but the answer was still no. So I encouraged him to remember these things as we stepped into the selection room since, again, if anything really did happen to him, someone would have to be responsible for payment.
He wandered somewhat aimlessly around the room, glancing at this casket, stopping to touch the interior of that one. His mother stayed close to him, carrying the clothing I had suggested she bring and watching as he stopped by a solid poplar casket and said “This one”. It was then I asked his mother for the clothing she had clutched tightly to her chest. Taking it from her, I straightened the shirt on the hanger then carefully laid it in the casket for him to see.
She gasped—a quiet, almost imperceptible sound—as her eyes filled with tears. Turning, she ran from the room, leaving him staring after her, not knowing what to do. So he looked at me. And I said, “Do you see what your death will do to her? You are still standing here, alive and well, but the mere thought of you being in that casket was more than she could stand. Do you see now why you are here?” He simply nodded then dropped his head and swiped at his eyes with one hand.
Had that moment not happened I firmly believe the entire effort would have been time wasted. But it did happen and, hopefully, it made a difference. I always said the judges had it backwards when they imposed this sort of requirement. The parents needed to be told they had to come—both of them if both were still living, whether or not they were still married, because the law says they have equal rights—and they should have to make funeral arrangements for their child while that child watched. Because you see, it’s often too easy to contemplate our own demise, especially when we believe ourselves to be invincible and immortal. It’s a whole ‘nother matter altogether to watch someone who gave us life having to acknowledge that we are neither.