Funeral and Burial Conundrum
September 18, 2018 5:02 AM   Subscribe

My mother died this weekend, just shy of three months after my father. She'll be buried in the same plot as my father, which is presenting… problems. Help me work out which is the least-worst option, and how to communicate with my extended family?

Because my father's death and interment is so recent, apparently when the grave is opened to bury my mother, there is a significant risk of decomposition odours. It's a subtropical climate averaging around 20C across the period in question.

Personally, I'm OK with this. Well. Not OK, but it's a natural part of the cycle of life for me and while no doubt extremely unpleasant, is far from the worst unpleasant reality I've dealt with during my parents' prolonged illness and dying.

However. I can completely understand that this would be *extremely* upsetting to people.

After three long years of looking after my parents through illness and pain, I am in a fog of grief and exhaustion and just not able to think this through clearly. Also on my absolute last nerve with a number of relatives and family friends but want to remain kind and compassionate, and recognise that they have lost a sibling and a friend.

Proposed solutions to date:
The funeral director (who is very nice) is really new to his job and is seeking counsel from more experienced colleagues. So far suggestions include:
A. Rose petals at the grave; or
B. Something odour absorbing - maybe kitty litter.
And from my husband (a very practical man):
C. Check the wind direction on the day and make sure seating is set up down wind.

I'm not a fan of A because it will just smell like roses and putrefecation I imagine. B and C seem sensible but inadequate. And… that's where we're at. The problems I'm facing, as I see it are:
Logistical / practical and then social.

On the logistics side:
What if anything can be done to mitigate the odour? Something? Nothing? Is there some sort of standard practice?

And on the social side:
My Father's recent funeral (and all family funerals to date) have had a Church service (Catholic) followed by funeral procession, interment, then a wake. Family and friends are welcome at each stage of the day, no one is excluded. Ideally I'd like to do all this for my mother's family and friends too. The interment, prayers, and associated rites are a really important part of saying farewell for them.

Options I can see so far are set out below. But maybe there's something I haven't thought of?

Option One:
Carry on as before with other funerals. Service, interment, and wake open to all.
*Gently but matter-of-factly pre-warn people, and let them make their choice about whether to attend the interment or not.
My fears are:
*Hysterics at the graveside. Truly. Not from me. And not something I want to deal with, even though I'm not completely unsympathetic.
*Also that the unpleasantness will mar my Mother's farewell.

Option Two
Have an extended viewing/visitation the day before the funeral for people to say farewell.
*Gently but matter-of-factly let people know that the visitation at the funeral parlour will be instead of the burial.
My fears are:
*Some people who are coming from overseas or interstate won't be able to make it to the viewing.
*Others may try to muscle their way in to the interment anyway.
*The funeral parlour where the viewing is about 10km and 30mins drive from family. That sound pretty minor, but family are elderly, this will be a barrier.
*Funeral home doesn't have a more convenient location.

Option Three
Say nothing, do not tell anyone about the interment, go with my husband and the priest, deal with it being awful, then go to the wake.
My fears are:
*It will be a Thing and speculation and gossip love a vacuum. There will be hurt feelings. Please see note at end regarding this.

Specific Questions
1. What can I actually say to people? I need a script. If I am upfront and matter-of-fact (and I am leaning that way) the best I've got is 'because Dad was buried so recently, there's some concern that when we bury Mum, there might be some odours. So everyone has a chance to say farwell, we've arranged a visitation and viewing at ….. The burial will be private."
2. Is there something even vaguer or more euphemistic I could say? Something more science-y and mater-of-fact? Something else? Help.
3. Is having people at the burial just a recipe for disaster?
4. What haven't I thought of?
5. Have you dealt with this yourself? What did you do?

*I'll see what the funeral director comes up with too.
*Am also asking the Priest, who is lovely and very insightful / clear headed.

I know I don't *have* to tell anyone anything, or accommodate anyone elses feelings. But can we please take it as read that I would like to be compassionate and kind to my extended family at a difficult time.
This is important to me for *me* - not for anyone else.
posted by t0astie to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Your desire to be compassionate and kind is admirable. It might help you to reframe that desire: it is just as kind to inform people that they may find a situation overwhelming, and to let them make their own decisions, as it is to simply shield people from those situations completely. And letting them make their own decisions respects their agency as people.

I'd go with Option One. Hysterics might happen in any one of these scenarios at any other location as well, and if they do, there's nothing that says that you have to take it upon yourself to "deal with them".
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:21 AM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh dear God no. If cremation is not an option, then schedule a private burial with just you and your husband.

"We've arranged a visitation and viewing for all friends and family at.... Due to concerns about ground conditions at the gravesite, the burial will be private."
posted by DarlingBri at 5:45 AM on September 18, 2018 [103 favorites]

Accept that you cannot really control this situation and that people are going to do what they're going to do.

Proceed with the services as normal. Say nothing—doing so will only prime people to have a bad reaction later. Place the seating upwind (not down!) if possible, you can at least control that much. If there are hysterics over the smell, let them be someone else's problem. The end.

You are already doing a ton of work during what is probably one of the most stressful and unpleasant times of your entire life. Don't also try to take on things that are out of your control, like the smell of dead bodies or other people's reactions to those smells. That's too much. Let yourself off the hook for this. Do what little you can, and otherwise let the chips fall where they may. Maybe there will be no odor at all, maybe there will be some but people will keep quiet about it, maybe someone will have a meltdown. None of that is within your control, so give yourself permission not to try. Focus on the myriad other issues that you are no doubt confronting at this time.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:51 AM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

strongly agree with DarlingBri - don't give people the option. It is upsetting, and people may not understand what they are agreeing to. And I think the script is great - "concerns about ground conditions" could really mean anything.

Is it possible that you could still do a wake after a private interment? That way you could do the wake wherever you normally would, and hopefully out-of-towners and people with mobility issues could make that work as normal.

You are being very kind and compassionate, and I hope that kindness extends to yourself. I'm sorry for your losses, and hope that you have some room for yourself to grieve and process in the ways you need.
posted by quadrilaterals at 5:52 AM on September 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

If the grave can be opened right away then you will know whether there is a problem. And (maybe?) if it is opened early and allowed to stand open any odors will dissipate, or you can judge whether they can be masked.

This funeral is for you. Remember that. You are not the stage manager for everyone else.

Consider if there is an older relative you can consult with, who can be supportive to you rather than someone whose feelings and sensibilities you are protecting. They may have insight either to family reactions or to previous situations.

Also possible is to have everyone stand back and watch from a distance, approaching the grave only if they wish to deal with the "ground conditions" after the actual ceremony but before the grave is closed.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:52 AM on September 18, 2018 [10 favorites]

Is there a reason you can't have your mother buried and the grave closed up before the funeral party arrives? Like, you have the church funeral, and then go to your house for the lunch/reception, then go to the grave for a graveside service where you perhaps plant flowers or something?

This sounds incredibly stressful, I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by arnicae at 5:53 AM on September 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

I am so sorry for your loss, and for the grief, exhaustion, and understandable annoyance with some others that you're feeling!

I feel like 90 percent of the solution-finding and decision-making ought to be the responsibility of the funeral home people. Surely this is within their job description and outside your expertise.

If they think the smell will still be noticeable, I'd choose Option 2. For a script, you could go with something like "due to conditions in the field, it will not be possible for the public to attend the interment." On preview, Darling Bri's phrasing is also good. You can even say "since Dad was just buried" if they ask, but I wouldn't get more detailed than some vagueness about the soil. Then, you can ask a friend or family member to work on finding people rides if they cannot drive that far the day before. Could you also have an extended viewing period in the church before the service? I realize it will differ from people's routines, but many funeral traditions don't include an interment step, and people will likely have been to funerals for people of other faiths and backgrounds before.

If the funeral director believes it is okay to continue, then I'd go with Option 3. In no case would I prime people to notice the odors. I don't think a warning is useful, because I don't think most people have the ability to assess whether they can handle something like this, and it doesn't sound like you know whether the smell will be overwhelming and viscerally upsetting, or almost unnoticeable. I'd get the funeral director to make that call. It's either going to be Okay and generally-tolerable, in which case Option 3, or it will be Not Okay, in which case Option 2.
posted by salvia at 5:58 AM on September 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m sorry for your loss and I have no answers, but our resident undertaker ColdChef has always been super knowledgeable and willing to help. I suggest you shoot him an email.
posted by amro at 6:20 AM on September 18, 2018 [11 favorites]

Is there a reason you can't have your mother buried and the grave closed up before the funeral party arrives?

arnicae: A Catholic funeral mass requires the presence of the body. Without the body they could have a memorial mass, but not a funeral.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:23 AM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have been to many catholic funerals where the interment ceremony takes place in a chapel at the cemetery and not at the gravesite. This can happen for various reasons - weather, the fact that they haven't opened the burial site for some reason, elderly people, etc. I would confer with the priest performing the mass and see if that is an option - to simply end with the casket at the chapel and then have the burial private.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:39 AM on September 18, 2018 [19 favorites]

Could you have them not dig the hole itself until after everyone leaves the grounds? I have been to many Catholic burials and have never seen one where the coffin is lowered into a grave. Maybe they can just have it all set up with the fake green grass rug thing under the coffin and stand and no one needs to know there is not actually a hole there.

I am so sorry for both of your losses.
posted by maxg94 at 6:42 AM on September 18, 2018 [19 favorites]

Hi! I am a professional funeral director in Louisiana and have faced this problem many times. The solution is quite easy.

What your funeral director wants to do is called a "dummy setup." You set up the tent and chairs in the same cemetery, but a good ways from the grave and lowering device. And that's where you have your graveside committal service. When the mourners leave, the funeral home brings the casket to the graveside, places on the lowering device and completes the burial.

Pros: You still have the procession to the cemetery, you still have the graveside services. You don't have to explain to anyone why you're doing it like this.

Cons: She'll be moved by someone other than her pallbearers (a sentimental problem, not a logistical one), and the priest may still want to walk over to the grave to bless it.

DO NOT try smell abatement. You won't win that war. Trust me.

Please feel free to message me directly for any followups. I have over 100 years of funeral directors and their experiences at my fingertips and can help with any other issues that may arise.

My most sincere condolences.
posted by ColdChef at 7:14 AM on September 18, 2018 [187 favorites]

Also: your funeral director is welcome to contact me directly. I'm a third generation undertaker and owner and I am always happy to share my solutions and workarounds with my colleagues.
posted by ColdChef at 7:19 AM on September 18, 2018 [80 favorites]

Came here for ColdChef; impressed as always by his kindness and expertise.

You are a MetaFilter treasure, ColdChef. Thank you for always taking the time to help MeFites during some of the hardest times in our lives and for doing so with such grace.
posted by widdershins at 8:05 AM on September 18, 2018 [98 favorites]

I’ve been to a decent amount of funerals, mostly Catholic, and the only time I’ve seen a coffin lowered into a grave is on TV. Most of the time the coffin was placed over the grave during the ceremony, but the actual lowering and covering up happened sometime later.

Perhaps you could do the same thing, but just the coffin sitting on top of the ground. The actual digging could happen later.
posted by sideshow at 8:14 AM on September 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

One family funeral I went to had a dummy setup due to the need to use an ATV to transport the deceased up a hill and across grass in early winter. We had a tent for the weather on a paved cul-de-sac deep inside the graveyard, a short procession, and military honors. I think many of the older attendees were relieved for accessibility reasons. His children, who were forewarned about the conditions, stuck around for the actual internment, although it wasn't necessary or expected.

As far as I know, no one outside of the family asked why we did it that way.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:59 AM on September 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

ColdChef is as always an invaluable resource. I just wanted to add that I am also Catholic and also don't think that most funerals have involved the actual lowering of the casket into the grave - mostly I think because the lowering now takes place not with ropes and pallbearers but by machine, and it's somewhat disturbing for folks anyway.
posted by corb at 9:17 AM on September 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thanks so much everyone for your thoughtful contributions. I'm so relieved there are a number of options and reading through (after a night's sleep!) has really helped me break out of the mind-lock around this issue. For clarification though, where I am, it is 100 per cent normal/the way things are done for pallbearers to take coffin from hearse to grave, lower the coffin down manually on straps, then the priest says final blessings, and everyone lines up to throw dirt on the coffin. And it will 150 per cent be a Thing I have to manage if we don't do it that way because everyone will expect it. And when they don't get it, they will ask me why. Directly and persistently.

Sure this reflects on those people, but it is what it is, and I still have to field the inevitable questions and hysterics. Which really will be my problem because they’ll be at, and about, me. Sadly after a lot of practice, I can cope with this and know it’s about them not me. But I’d just rather not at this point if it can be avoided. If that means a bit of stage management, it’s well worth it to me. And no, there’s no-one in the family I can delegate to, consult, or ask to run interference. I’m it.

Thanks especially to Coldchef. I’m going to reach out by email. You truly are a treasure.
posted by t0astie at 2:29 PM on September 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

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