I planned my first funeral a few months ago. I am talking about my wife Uzma’s funeral. She died on January 30, 2019.
Uzma had cancer. When her doctors couldn’t stop cancer from having Uzma, they referred her to hospice. It was about 6 weeks before she died. That’s when we began funeral planning in earnest. Once her cancer came back we knew that it would take her before we could grow old together. Still, we hadn’t thought about funeral planning until Uzma’s father’s funeral. All Uzma knew before then was that she wanted Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie to be her last resting place. It is a non-denominational cemetery. And Uzma would joke, “If I become a ghost, I want to be able to easily haunt Old Orchard Mall.” One of her favorite malls is across from that cemetery.
Funerals back home on the Indian subcontinent are usually hasty affairs. There are no funeral homes. Wakes are held in the deceased’s home. There’s no cold storage. No one embalms the body. Some families wait for key relatives to arrive from out-of-town, but most perform the last rites are performed within a day or two of death. No cold storage and no embalming dictates that timeline. Climate defines traditions.
Traditions are not immutable laws of physics. But many immigrants who have lived in the west for decades treat them as such. We don’t give much thought to the idea that while the dead are on display, funerals are meant for the living. No matter what faith tradition the deceased belonged to, her life is over. All the good she was meant to do is done. She has earned all her promised reward, whether a place in heaven or a better next life. Her outcome won’t change whether her last rites are in one day or seven.
On the other hand, it does have a bearing on all those who loved her and are left behind. For them, the funeral is an opportunity to say their last goodbyes, to celebrate a life well-lived, and to mourn the possibilities that died with their loved one. It is an essential stop on their journey of grief. In today’s world, when so many who love each other tend to live so far apart, it would be better if the funeral rites were completed when everyone who wanted to be there got there.
Uzma’s father, suffering from advanced lung disease, died in January 2018. Uzma was by his side when he took his final breath. The kids and I were by her side an hour later. His was a hasty funeral. He was taken to a Muslim funeral home where the close family got to see him again before he was buried. There was no wake open to all friends and relatives. Until almost the last moment, we didn’t know precisely when he would be buried. At the graveside, Uzma was shocked and distressed to see how disorganized everything seemed. A front end loader was used as a crane to lower her father’s burial vault into the grave, which was then covered with large chunks of frozen ground. None of it felt right.
She would later say that it felt that in that funeral, there was no respect for the dead or the living. And that’s when she decided that she would have a Muslim funeral but not in a Muslim funeral home. “I don’t want to buried in a hurry,” She said, adding, “I want everyone who wants to come to have a chance to come.” She wanted everyone to know exactly when to come to the funeral home and exactly when she would be buried.
Looking back, I think we should all plan our funerals when we are healthy. Pick the funeral home, the flowers, the casket, the agenda. The whole shebang. Once we are terminally ill, starting the planning then, whether for a funeral or estate planning, becomes too emotionally challenging — for our loved ones and us. Even beginning such discussions at that point makes it seem like giving up all hope and pulling the plug. That’s even though Uzma knew what kind of funeral she wanted, we put off planning it until December.
On the first day of hospice, she said to me, “Help me make funeral arrangments. You know what I want. Do the legwork. But I want to make the final decisions.” It’s not easy for anyone to make their own or their beloved’s funeral arrangements. Hard as beginning funeral planning is after diagnosis of a terminal illness, it is even harder when you can practically hear death’s knock on the door.
Suburban living in America means we all drive past funeral homes multiple times a year, if more frequently. But we don’t really start scoping them out or even remember their names. Not knowing which funeral home to begin with, I started the planning with the non-denominational cemetery across the street from one of her favorite malls.
Uzma was very weak by this time. Getting out of the house, getting in the car, getting out of the vehicle, things we usually do without giving any thought, all required planning, and a great deal of help. However, she wanted to make the final decision. After I got some basic information over the phone, we drove to the cemetery. She picked the specific plot of land to hold her forever. It was next to a towering weeping willow. She had long said she wanted to be buried next to a tree
Learning that Uzma was a Muslim, Tom at the cemetery suggested we contact Justyne Scott at N.H. Scott & Hanekamp Funeral Home. “She works closely with an Imam and has experience doing Muslim funerals,” he explained. I called Justyne the next day. Indeed she did work closely with the Imam from a mosque in Northbrook. Fortunately, Uzma considered that mosque, affiliated with the Islamic Cultural Center of Greater Chicago in Northbrook as her home mosque. That is the mosque she most liked to visit for prayers.
Justyne met with both of us. Justyne had the best demeanor I could have hoped for in a funeral director. She always appeared professional without being stiflingly formal. Moving deliberately, she looked neither in haste nor lackadaisical. She had a calm, reassuring voice that was neither louder nor softer than necessary. No question ruffled her; no request flustered her. She gave us good advice about things we hadn’t thought about.
Justyne explained to us which arrangements such as caskets and flowers that Muslim families usually chose as well as the unique arrangements the Imam was okay with. She even up followed up with the Imam regarding questions we had. She explained how the funeral home arranged for the ritual washing of the body that Muslims do before the funeral. Uzma and I repeatedly wept through these discussions. Justyne responded in a way that a good therapist would — tissues at hand, never speaking more than necessary and never saying anything inappropriate to the moment. Uzma decided who should wash her body and which casket should hold her.
Wanting everyone who wanted to attend to have the opportunity to participate in, Uzma had me ask the Imam his views on embalming. The Imam said he didn’t know, but he would research and get back to me. A few days later, he told me that he wished we won’t do it, but there is no scriptural prohibition against it. He added, “If you do go for embalming, I will still do my job — which is to lead the funeral prayers for your wife.” Justyne told us she would delay the embalming for as long as she could. Eventually, it was not necessary. Uzma passed away on a Wednesday night. We buried her four days later. Everyone we knew wanted to be there was there.
Uzma passed away late in the evening. The staff member from N.H. Scott & Hanekamp, who came to pick Uzma’s body up from our home at 2 am first met with me and explained what he would be doing. He was respectful, thoughtful, and deliberate. He also had an appearance and demeanor like Justyne’s – just right for the context and occasion. Whether it is because of the training N.H. Scott gives their staff, or whether it is because they select people who are already this way, I don’t know, but it made things bearable during such a difficult time.
On the day of the funeral, everything happened as planned. Justyne and other funeral home staff were unobtrusive but never hard to find and never unhelpful. There was a room where we had the wake, the eulogies, and prayers. And they also made another room available to us. They let us keep cookies and coffee in the is second room. The atmosphere there was less somber. It was a lifesaver, keeping our young kids and their friends from becoming disengaged.
When the Iman was ready to lead the funeral prayers, Justyne and her colleagues knew exactly where and how much space to create for the Muslim attendees to pray. They just made everything run smoothly and in a manner that would have pleased Uzma. There was nothing slapdash, hasty, or haphazard about it.
It got me thinking, what makes a good funeral home director. First and foremost, like a good therapist, she must listen and comfort well. She must be familiar with the faith traditions of her customers. As the director of the last act in which the deceased plays a part, she must make the different moving parts of a funeral work together without becoming too visible. Justyne was all that, and then some.
More than half a year has passed since Uzma is gone. I feel half-ready to make a decision that Uzma deliberately left to me — choosing her gravestone and epitaph.