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FEBRUARY 2, 2010 4:33PM

The Long Goodbye: Death be Not Like Everyone Else's

Rate: 17 Flag
By Andrea Higbie

My friend Carol was chitchatting away, driving through Flower Mound, Texas, with my two sons and me, when she nonchalantly turned her eyes from the road, looked me full in the face and said, "I wrote a list of my funeral songs."

She titled the list, she told me, "Songs for My Funeral," and had left it out on the phone table at home, where she lives with her husband.

"Songs for your funeral?" I said. "Can I drive now?"

Worried looks crossed my sons' faces. Here we go: just another one of Mom's strange friends. But could she be the last one we will ever have to meet?.

"I'm not a kamikaze, don't worry," Carol assured me. "I just want to plan ahead."

"Well and good," I said. "But when your husband sees it, won't he be...surprised?"

While Carol is perhaps not in the first blush of youth, she is fit as a fiddle and fresh as a daisy, and the only sign signalling her possible impairment, and certainly her questionable judgment, was leaving the song list in plain sight where her husband could happen, would happen, upon it. Not that the state of their marriage is my business, but why go to the trouble of compiling a funeral song list in the first place? The music at your funeral is going to be the least of your concerns when you're lying dead in a coffin. You're not going to be dancing to it.

But Carol's my friend, and I humored her. "These are my funeral songs," I offered, in the spirit of the moment. "''Highway to Hell," "I Wanna Be Sedated" and the theme from "Dexter."
We laughed, but from that point on, Carol kept her thoughts, and plans, to herself. But it got me thinking. I could die -- right here, right now, or not -- but I will die. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but, as sure as snow turns to slush, I will die, someday. At my first real newspaper job, my boss used to open the paper each morning and go right to the obit page. "Hmm," he would muse, scanning the headlines. "Dead at 90 -- that's a good run. Uh-oh, dead at 50 -- that's young. Oh, no, dead at 46! That's young, very young!"
The other baby reporters and I would laugh, oh, to be so young and callow, but now I see the laugh's on me. Now this baby boomer, not a baby anymore, scans the headlines online, and I do the same thing. Immensely cheered that J.D. Salinger, for example, died at 91, not that I was glad he died, and horribly displeased when Brittany Murphy was dead at 32. She was so young, very young.
That I will die at all is one hard thought. Dying is for other people, old ones. Commercials for Depends make me want to vomit. That the women in these commercials look more like my aunt than like my grandmother is equally distressing. I liked it better when I was watching "Captain Kangaroo" along with the rest of the tsunami-esque wave of baby boomers born sometime after World War II and ebbing a year after the Kennedy assassination.
Baby boomers have commanded, by virtue of our sheer numbers, the course of our country's commerce, culture and focus. And like the cuddled, coddled masses we were and are, we've tried for the last 65 years to stand out, in our own way, to have the shiniest Schwinn bike, the best parties, the most unusual weddings, the perfect baby strollers and the perfect Ferberized babies. Even though, ironically, in our zeal to stand out, we all wanted and did the same things. So now that the march of time is dragging us, me, along, we can -- and I will -- make that final statement, the funeral, the most excellent, Uber-special going-away party ever.
I've attended conventional funerals as well as some so-called Celebrations of Life funerals, with rotating photos of the deceased projected on the walls, but for the most part, on the East Coast, where I grew up, these are fairly sedate affairs.
They do things differently here in Texas, where I've been living the last couple of years. Some months after Carol, my sons and I arrived at our destination, and lived to tell the tale, I attended a funeral for the aunt of another friend. The aunt, Peggy, died of cancer at the age of 65. Not too terribly old, but certainly not too young. The funeral took place in a Baptist church, just west of Dallas. "Baptist" was my first clue, tipping me off that we weren't in New York anymore, and that all the attendees would be talking in their thick, saucy y'alling and drawling voices, veering close to speaking in tongues, forcing me to perk up my ears extra high to try to untangle it all.

But when I took my seat in a pew, I spotted something I could not have anticipated.
"That woman's wearing sequins!" I whispered to an acquaintance, glancing to the right of us. "Look!"

Whom she looked at, though, was not the woman in sequins, but me. "So?" she asked, waiting for an explanation of why I was pointing this out.

"That doesn't seem overdressed to you?" I said. But apparently not, as two more women took their seats in other pews, easy to spot from the shimmer and shine of their sequined dresses. One even had on a great, big (everything's bigger in Texas) sequined hat. I was glad she wasn't right in front of me, blocking my view, which later turned out to be important, though I would have enjoyed examining that hat at close range.

And though I hadn't expected sequins, I had expected the usual convoy of black limos parked outside the church, for the family, but even there was a jolt of culture shock: all I saw were pickup trucks.
While East Coast mourners sit quietly, somberly, heads bowed in prayer and reflection, the people at this church in Texas raised up their hands in jubilation to Jaysus. The pastor talked a great deal about Jaysus. It was a very Jesus-filled day. Hallelujah! 

On the East Coast, funeral music is respectful, calm, low-key. "Amazing Grace" is considered a bold choice.

Here in Texas, the song chosen by the departed's relatives took me by surprise. "When We All Get to Heaven" was a rollicking sing-along, clap-along song, at once cheerful and generously optimistic. For those who didn't know the words, like me, supertitles of the lyrics were helpfully projected on the big screen behind the pastor. And I thanked God my view was not blocked by that sequined hat.

What stood out too was that the pastor read a letter aloud from the pulpit, a letter written by the deceased for the occasion.

It got me thinking.

Since we're all of us getting older, some of us seemingly faster than others (in the interest of full disclosure, I'm closer to the younger wave of baby boomers, not the older), we are also doing our damndest not to limp our ways into old age. We tell ourselves, in essays, books and on TV, that 50 is the new 30, and we are determined to prove that's true. One glance at our Botoxed faces, liposuctioned thighs, hot yoga'd chakras and cleansing fasts is the dead giveaway, along with our embarrassing stubborness to insist on knowing the new songs, movies and slang. We're awesome, at least to ourselves.
But unlike our childhood hero Peter Pan, we have to grow up, we have to die. And while we have to go, we don't have to go gentle.
So I won't.
What I plan to do takes a page, literally, from Peggy's funeral. First, I will write a letter for the rabbi/minister/exorcist/dj officiating to read aloud to the loudly sobbing mourners.

"You are probably wondering," my letter will start, "why I gathered you all here today." It will go on to highlight people and events of importance in my life; I will think of them later. It will be matchless in its brilliance, its singularity.

The letter will be followed by some songs I would like to go out to, beginning with "I Saw the Light" by Hank Williams, as I am hoping by then I have; "Take Me to the River," sung by either Al Green or the Talking Heads, I haven't decided which yet; and "Wonderful World," covered by Joey Ramone. If those self-absorbed, self-centered (and now old!) baby boomer friends in "The Big Chill" can have a great soundtrack at Kevin Kostner's funeral, I can at mine. Like Peggy's funeral, mine will be fun and festive. Perhaps even rollicking.

I want my funeral to be as unique as a fingerprint, as beautiful as a snowflake. 
As a lifelong member of the Me Generation, I want my funeral to scream "ME!" Because I'm one among the Pepsi Generation, that's the soda my funeral organizers will be serving. 
So at the final end of the day of the life of this baby boomer, the most fitting funeral tune of all, and one I certainly intend to consider, will be "My Way" -- the Sid Vicious version. That about says it all.

 And I'll be the one dressed in sequins.

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Enough of the somber funerals! I vote for fun and festive. That's the way it should be from here on out. Amazing grace, forget it. Death is sad enough. Why not celebrate the life we had?

Great post:)
Why not is right!

Thank you!
what a great post. It is sad but it makes sense. I know that people die I have been to funerals , but it is like I guess I just don't think that I will die anytime soon. I don't know how old I will be but like everyone else I would like to think that I am 212 years young. Death makes me sad. I don't even know you but for me it is easy to picture death and it makes me sad to think that you could be that way ever. I use to help people die in a nursing home. I had to tell them that it was ok to go that it was their time and that yes their families would go on no matte what they said to them to keep them hanging on one more second in pain that I could not even imagaine. It was a very hard job a very sobering job. It made me very able to appreciate life and despise death. It made it easy for me to imagine what it would feel like to have someone close to me no longer hear and be able to burst out in tears. It is weird cause I just don't cry hardly at all. I am a strong person. Your post is wonderful. Very sobering.
They can sing two songs at my funeral;
My Way
Ace in the Hole.
BTW- Of course anyone who loves great music would know that My Way is by Sinatra.
That said, I'd also like to say that the "Ace In the Hole" to which I referred is NOT a hillbilly version by some guy named george strait.

Rather, with better taste, it is this ACE IN THE HOLE
My mother always said that if you did not laugh at a funeral, you were not remembering the good stuff. We did laugh at hers. I have unfortunately seen sweat pants at a funeral and would have preferred sequins. I must get started on my music list now!
thanks for the wonderful read.
I'm having Warren Zevon's "Keep me in your heart", as sung by his son on the tribute album. Then maybe "Highway to Hell" as they roll me into the furnace...

I remember a good friend of Peter Sellers talking about how Sellers detested "In the mood", but had it played at his own funeral, since he would no longer have to hear it.
Oops I got that wrong. It was Jorge Calderon and Jennifer Warnes who did that song. Jordan Zevon covered "Studebaker".
I have already written my obituary, read it on Iknow it will be useful one day!
Did you ever apolgize to Carol or thank her for the idea for this article? I'd like to know what her songs were even though you didn't.
Keep going to those Texas funerals...maybe someday you'll hear the entire congregation sing "I'll Fly Away" in a capella 4 part harmony with their hands raised and swaying bodies!
You will then have been initiated into the ultimate Southern funeral experience.
Oh I like the way you write...not to mention the way you think.

Reminds me of a story: The day after my father died (at age 86) my mother woke me shortly after dawn. She likes to get a jump on the day. I was sleeping in my "teenager" bed at the time, once again at her mercy. "We have to go shopping," she announced. "Your father needs a new suit."

Do you see how your post made me think of that story?
Oh lord! I have most of mine planned - not a funeral but a FUNeral! I want Ray Charles singing, America the Beautiful, for this wonderful land of ours; Louis Armstrong singing, What a Wonderful World, and all assembled singing some OLD hymns, Shall We Gather At The River, Oh Master, Let Me Walk With Thee, and whatever they choose to warble. Music has always mattered to me and that's the celebration. If someone would play Rameau's Dardanas Suite I would simply love that. Then, if people wanted to have a music party, ukes, guitars, singing, violins, drums I know my departure would be a good and proper one! Mariachi Band? You bet! Hot spicy food and ice cream for the wake. Make donations to Best Friends Animal Rescue in Utah, to Heifer International, anyplace with people and animals are encouraged to live loving, happy lives.

Then those who attend are expected to go home loving one another, sleeping soundly and having happy dreams.
Sorry, guys, I forgot! Bagpipes to pipe us in, and again. pipes to lead us out, playing Scotland Forever.

Dardanus Suite (sorry)
As a longtime newspaper person myself, I know what you mean about the obits. There are also times when I look over at our photographer and say, "We really need a good bank robbery, drowning or murder." People always say they don't want to read that stuff and sure enough, you put it out there and they come running. Good post. Rated.
I am still holding out for a Viking funeral. Songs are fairly optional, but "Carry On" is sentimental favorite, which "Mama Told Me Not To Come" as the graveside tribute. ha!

Well, we do all die. There it is. In the meantime, I'd like to eat some sushi. ;)
I guess I'd go for Who By Fire by Leonard Cohen, The Parting Glass by The Clancy Brothers, and maybe I Shall Be Released by The Band. Thought-provoking post.
Oh hell, doesn't everybody have their funeral service planned ahead of time? Mine has been written out for years. Every so often I update it, changing out a musical selection here and there or re-writing the service. As I tell people: it'll be my one and only chance to preach in church. Too bad I won't be there to enjoy it. ;-)
I think I want: "i still haven't found what I'm looking for" (U2 - Rattle and Hum), or would that be to wistful? Enjoyed this little dance with mortality. I too like to read the obits, makes me feel lucky...for the moment anyway.
I want "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult played at my funeral.
'We Gotta Get Out of This Place...'

And so we will. Eventually. But there's no use rushing it. You may as well hang around and see what happens next.
Bears thinking about, doesn't it?

I want cremation. My ashes parceled out in baggies with birg seed - several packs to each daring person to toss it wherever. A BIG party later with everyone's favorite music, lots of food, lots of drinks. And, most importantly, a place to hang out and have some time...
Nice post Andrea, and I agree with you completely. That's why I started making custom wooden coffins almost 17 years ago. My philosophy is that everyone's coffin should be a work of art that says something about the person that occupies it. After all, we only get one shot at making a last impression. I also make urns. You can see examples of my work at my web site Thanks for your posting your thoughts on this topic.