“When I’m gone just cremate me,” Hughey MacSwiggan told his third and final wife as she stood at his bedside while the hospice nurse fiddled with the morphine drip that hadn’t kept his pain at bay. The operative word in his directive was just. He wasn’t especially fond of fire. He hadn’t picked out a…

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When I was a child I spoke as a child, understood as a child, reasoned as a child. I knew my parents loved me best and assumed my several siblings all agreed. I mistook abundant love for especial favor and blessings for entitlements, and I took pride in things I ought to have been simply…

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The photo of  the new priest among his people is an old one. “‘First Solemn High Mass,” it reads in white handprint in the top right corner, “of Rev. Thomas P. Lynch ” and on the next line “St. John’s Church, Jackson, Mich., June 10, 1934.” It is a panoramic, 17″x 7″ black-and-white glossy. Up…

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It’s sunny and 70 at Chapel Hill. I’m speaking to Project Compassion, an advocacy group for end-of-life issues, on an unlikely trinity of oxymorons–the good death, good grief and the good funeral. “What,” most people reasonably ask, “can ever be good about death or grief or funerals?” The 150 people in this room understand. They…

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Not only did they die, they disappeared. There’s the terrible fact becoming all too clear. We will not get them back to let them go again, to wake and weep over them, to look upon their ordinary loveliness once more, to focus all uncertainties on the awful certainty of a body in a box in…

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Like David Fisher in the award-winning HBO series Six Feet Under, when my father died, I embalmed him. My brother Pat assisted. We dressed him, put him in a box and soon thereafter buried him. Tim did the obits and drove the hearse. Eddie called the priest and did the printing. Mary handled the florals…

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After 30 years of directing funerals, I’ve come to believe in open caskets. A service to which everybody but the deceased is invited, like a wedding without the bride or a baptism without the baby, denies the essential reality of the occasion, misses the focal point. It is why we comb wreckage, drag rivers and…

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