Spare Every Expense, Except One


When my mother, Patricia McGowan, died in late June, we chose the cheapest coffin for her burial. The funeral director brought the glossy album of possibilities for us to leaf through and without even glancing at it, I told him, “Mom would want the plainest, simplest, most expensive one you’ve got.” There was a small silence. “I meant the least expensive,” I said quickly. “We’ll take the cheapest.”

We wanted Mom to have the best, but we also wanted to honor her wishes. Her hero was Dorothy Day (who went out in a plain wooden box), and where coffins were concerned, best meant cheap.

For the obituary, however, we spared no expense.

Five years ago, my father had asked me if I would write their obits a little early. In those days, newspapers carried them for free and so I wrote it all—all the details of a life of power and strength and endless love, and it was important that I do that because by then Mom was deep in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Most of her grandchildren had never known the woman who had astonished the rest of us for so many years, and we didn’t want to deny them their heritage.

Because Dad had “prearranged” everything, the obituary was on file. After we chose that particle-board coffin, the undertaker looked skeptically at the essay-length obituary I had written and said, “You realize this will cost...

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.