Going Out in Style

05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Stephanie Gertler Author: Jimmy's Girl, The Puzzle Bark Tree, Drifting, The Windmill

I knew it was not a good thing to do - to read a blog someone wrote about my mother's funeral. But I did. And pretty much right before I went to bed last night which was another bad idea. I was forewarned: the blog mentioned that my mother had been buried in a Chanel suit and that although it was amusing (and it was) and cheeky, it might upset me. It made me feel both sad and angry because it was about my mother, and I suppose, also about me since I was the one who dressed my mother and planned her funeral. Maybe, if the the blog wasn't about my mother's funeral, I might have chuckled.

Well, first of all, my mother's burial suit was not Chanel - it was Escada. But based upon the blogger's opinion that burying someone in a $5000 Chanel suit was wasteful since if sold on eBay the price fetched for the suit could feed a family for several months, Escada was right up there with feeding families. According to the blogger (who had not met my mother prior to her stroke), rumor had it that my mother was far too practical and generous to have wanted to be buried in that suit...she would have preferred selling it and giving the money to charity.

Here's the thing - or really one of many things. The blogger, who is ten years younger than I am, still has her mother. Secondly, the blogger said that my mother was quite old (yes, either 87 or 89 depending upon whom you ask - if you asked my mother, she would have said 87. She also might have said 80 or none of your business). She also said that my mother's death came after suffering a long illness, and therefore her death, although sad, was not devastating. In the scheme of life and natural progression, that statement is true. Dying at 89 (or 87) is not a tragedy, yet it is always too soon to die and always too soon for a daughter (or son) to lose a mother. Or, in the case of my uncle's wife, too soon to lose your husband. He died in November at 87, after a brief but grueling illness: Nonetheless, his wife (and I) still don't feel it was time for him to die.

My mother's illness didn't make her death any easier for me. For my mother, silent and wheelchair-bound for five years, I can bet that she would have preferred to have keeled over and dropped dead in the designer suit department at Bergdorf's or in the supermarket aisle at Gristede's. Simply, she would have preferred to have died rapidly rather than enduring five years of illness that left her trapped in a wheelchair, wearing diapers, and socially infantilized.

The blog did make me wonder what my mother would have wanted to wear for burial. Too late now for me to change her outfit. My God. I have enough trouble figuring out what I should wear when I go out for an evening - and now this? Honestly, my mother often said (before her stroke) that she just wanted to be cremated which would have meant she was naked. But cremation was not an option since my father was opposed and my mother had nothing written down with her desire. On days when she was dressed "casually" (which were rare - my mother was not a "down dresser"), she might have been in one of her cotton flowing short muumuus. But then again, those were her "house dresses." Personally, I think she would have looked like some sort of doll if she'd worn one of those in her casket.

The blogger also mentioned that my mother was in a "very nice casket" in a "fancy funeral home" - something else I took personally and as another example of how I wasted money. So, now what should I do? Make an exchange? In fact, the casket was the second up from the cheapest one available. I chose it for two reasons: It seemed sufficient, and I knew my mother (albeit about to be dressed in Escada) would not have wanted to waste money on a casket. Although the funeral was, indeed, held at a tony funeral parlor the likes of which caters to the Upper East Side over-privileged, my family's "wealth" is a myth. I chose the funeral home primarily because it is nonsectarian, had held my grandmother's body, and was just a few blocks from my parents' apartment. When the funeral parlor removed my mother's body from her apartment to the tune of $800 for a ride in their van, I was aghast. I toyed with the idea of just hailing a cab for the three-block ride - something that would have made my mother laugh. As for the suit (and yes, I am being way too defensive), I wanted my mother to look in death as she did in life. To answer the blogger's question about shoes and underwear - in fact, she wore neither. Although I did think about burying her in her trademark high heels - but when I searched the apartment for them, they had clearly all been stolen (by one of the many care givers over the years) since my mother was relegated to sweat pants and sneakers for the last five years (the latter of which I never understood since she was unable to stand let alone walk). Someone probably sold her size 5.5 Manolos on eBay and, subsequently, a family somewhere was fed for several months.

To think, until I read that blog last night, I thought I did a pretty good job of burying my mother.
As for the blogger's take on the open casket, that was another tough call for me. But my mother had open caskets for her parents, so I followed suit. I likened it to the way I set a dinner table as my mother did - never placing jars or bottles on the table even for a picnic. Condiments were always placed in small glass bowls on saucers with tiny spoons on the side. The dead were placed in open caskets. My grandmother/Heinz ketchup. So much for upbringing.

And finally, I must agree with the blogger that the embalmer/mortician was hardly Bobbie Brown. I arrived an hour before the "mourners" and with tissues and hand cream that I found in the bathroom at the funeral home, I dabbed my mother's cold stone face, removing the caked powdery substance and all-too-red lipstick that was supposed to make her look life-like. I left her skin with a dabbed-on coating of cream, and used one of her own lipsticks that I'd slipped into my bag after her death (anticipating that I would give it to the mortician although I didn't have a chance). Her complexion had always been magnificent. I tried to make her look un-dead, talking to her as I did the make-over as though she were alive...laughing while the tears streamed down my face...telling her she looked like a cross between The Joker and Madame de Pompadour and that's why I was fixing her face.
I wore a blue peasant blouse and my trademark narrow black pants to my mother's funeral - refusing to wear black since I felt that I wanted to celebrate my mother's life, and although I usually wear black anyway, it made the wrong statement. When I bought the blouse the day before her funeral (on sale at The Gap), I figured it was something I could wear again. I never have. It hangs in my closet and I'm not quite sure what to do with it: I can't give it away for some reason, and yet I can't wear it - not even to someone else's funeral.

And just for the record, my mother wears no jewelry as she lies six feet under.

I suppose the bottom line is that we really don't know how it feels to lose a mother - even after illness and even at a "ripe old age" until we're faced with that loss. For sure, we don't know how we'll feel, what we will wear, or what we will choose for our mothers to wear for their exits.

Since my mother's funeral, I have, however, thought about what I would like to wear for burial - a subject the blogger mentioned with the suggestion that just as there are DNR orders, we should have DNDB orders (Do Not Dress Badly) prior to our demise - this an outgrowth of a young friend of hers dying and ending up wearing pastel polyester and clutching a rosary in an open casket - anathema to both her young friend and to her. That hit home: I don't want to be buried in something I wouldn't typically wear. I haven't come up with an outfit yet - as I said before, I have a hard time getting dressed to go out for the evening. My indecision, by the way, is a left-over emotion from the times when my mother more than often criticized my "outfits." I usually end up "playing it safe" and wearing black leggings and a tunic top, regardless of the season. The DNDB order is not a bad idea. I would take it one step further and place an outfit aside. Although the blogger advises to skip anything like fancy French underwear, I would like to wear a pair of my black Hanky Panky's ($18 each and my one real indulgence when it comes to fashion) and socks (I'm a devotee of Hue). And then maybe just the leggings and a tunic top - and no bra since I never wear bras. Wearing one in death would infuriate me. But someone, please, send me off with a book or a magazine, and a pad of paper and a pen. If there is an afterlife, and I have nothing to read and nothing with which to write down my thoughts, I'd wish I were dead.