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Wendy Dennis

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Dying Large

Posted: 10/03/11 01:00 AM ET

I must have crossed some kind of age threshold, because when I go to funerals lately, I start thinking about my own. It's not the dying part that scares me. It's the numbers I'll draw for the service. I'm in the sanctuary and the place is packed and some relative is at the podium going on about how wonderful the dead person was and how much they gave to the UJA, and I start taking a head count and doing the math and the minute the funeral is over, I call up my daughter and tell her that when my time comes, she has to hire extras.

She hates when I talk like that, but I don't think you can be too careful about the optics of your own demise. For instance, if I die in a horrible accident, I want my handlers to know that they are not, under any circumstances, to let anyone mark the spot with teddy bears or carnations, tell my loved ones that I'm "in a better place", hold a "life-affirming" remembrance for me, or deliver one of those treacly eulogies that make people wonder if they've walked into the wrong chapel.

There ought to be a law against delivering a crappy eulogy. I can't tell you how many funerals I've sat through wishing that the Law and Order crew would burst into the sanctuary, handcuff the offenders, and read them their rights -- especially the one about their right to remain silent. When someone is charged with the responsibility of delivering the last words that will ever be spoken about another human being, I think they have a moral obligation not to mention their meatball recipe.

I get my views about dying from my mother, who was completely unsentimental about death. My mother had a point of view on death. She was opposed to it. But given that she didn't have much choice in the matter, she focused on more pragmatic concerns, like letting it be known how she did and didn't want to go.

She had it all mapped out. She hoped to go quickly and painlessly -- preferably after a couple of smokes. And when the time came, she wanted to look sensational. She always envied Vivian Rotenberg, who keeled over from a heart attack in the middle of a bridge game with her makeup and hair freshly done. " And she won her last hand, too," my mother used to say.

My mother made her final wishes known -- down to the last detail: when she wanted the plug to be pulled, and which of her three daughters had to pull it ("You have to do it," she told me. "Joanie will get too emotional and Nancy will forget."); who would deliver her eulogy (her granddaughters); how many shovelfuls of earth would cover her coffin ("three max, four if you get pressure").

She had no patience for a ritual that has grown increasingly common at Jewish funerals in recent years, whereby friends and relatives shovel earth on the coffin until it's covered. She didn't see the point of making her loved ones hang around the cemetery when they could be back at the shiva house scarfing back bagels and lox. (My people have long viewed stuffing one's face as an anesthetic for loss.)

My mother was such a successful executive producer of her own funeral, I intend to follow in her footsteps. At the moment, I'm leaning towards an understated affair -- a preference that puts me wildly out of sync with my baby boomer contemporaries, who are orchestrating Busby Berkeley farewells.

Funeral homes now offer elaborately produced tribute videos (with HDTV for optimum viewing), "remembrance tables" to display personal items, and the chance to release a dove on your loved one's behalf to the tune of The Temptations' "I'm Really Going To Miss You."

According to the Pittsburg Post-Dispatch, at one funeral, a casket was wrapped in brown paper and string and stamped "Return to Sender," and at the visitation of a Texas entrepreneur, steaks sizzled on the barbecue, while a margarita machine dispensed drinks at the burial plot. Some companies bury ashes with cement to create undersea "memorial reefs", while others arrange for people to rocket their ashes into outer space, like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, LSD guru Timothy Leary and gonzo Rolling Stone reporter Hunter S. Thompson. One man planned to have a Viking funeral where his ashes would be placed in a wooden boat, which would then be set on fire and floated on a river.

It was bound to happen, of course. We of the Woodstock generation who protested and experimented and embraced alternative everything have long been interested in pushing the limits of self-expression, and our desire to noisily overturn convention is unlikely to stop just because we're facing the Big Chill.

Certainly counter-cultural icon Ken Kesey and Beatle George Harrison said screw the boring service, choosing instead to be buried in more singular ways. Harrison asked to have his ashes scattered on the waters of the River Ganges, while Kesey was buried on his Oregon farm in a DayGlo pine box built by friends, who told hilarious stories from his Merry Prankster days. He lay in the casket (without embalming) wearing a Grateful Dead Steal Your Face beret and a pair of cowboy boots.

As a child of the sixties, I'm touched by both of these farewells, probably because they're so true to the individuals they're meant to honor. What leaves me cold is the theme park exit where they stamp your hand and give out party favors. It sounds way too much like death by Chuck E. Cheese to me.

In the end, I think I'll probably go out with the Jew Classic. While I'm the least religious person I know, and very much a product of my time, I've always found the traditional Jewish service to be deeply moving. And I'm a little reluctant to risk the kitsch-factor of a trendy farewell. Let's face it -- the Jewish send-off has stood the test of time.

Certainly, I would never dream of messing with the Mourner's Kaddish, which I consider one of the most haunting laments ever written. Still, after the words have been spoken and the prayers have been sung, there's really only one person I want to sing me out, and that's Bob Dylan. I was thinking of a song from Tell Tale Signs, something epic and moving, like "Red River Shore". I can't think of a finer way to take my leave.

But while I'm leaning towards a classic farewell, certain aspects of dying large definitely appeal to me. I've long hankered to have a New Orleans jazz band play me out, and I'm toying with revamping the shiva menu in favor of something a little more foodie -- although I'm cognizant that in some circles this will be viewed as wildly radical, and my daughter could take heat.

All I have to do is figure out how to jack up the numbers, but I'm working on that.

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First published in Zoomer magazine