How planning Wonder Woman’s funeral made me plan my own as a gift to my family

Guest post by Kelsey Munger
By: twitchery - CC BY 2.0
By: twitcheryCC BY 2.0

“Today we’re going to get into small groups,” my thanatology teacher announced, handing out a list of questions. The challenge: planning Wonder Woman’s funeral.

Wonder Woman, according to our assignment, had tragically passed away after many years of kicking butt as a sexy crime fighting crusader in the name of justice. Because she was loved the world over, Ms. Wonder Woman’s only direct request was that her body disposition (what’s done to the body), final disposition (the body’s final resting place), and funeral service equally include all of the many unique death-related practices without offending or marginalizing any of the inhabitants of the earth.

The request was sweet… but not exactly simple…

Despite appearing noble and caring, for a universal icon to not play favorites when it came to cultural death-related practices, her request wasn’t practical or even, well, possible.

“This is taking too long; we’re not going to get done on time if we don’t hurry,” I said, looking at the clock on the wall.

“Maybe we need to just pick something so we can get started — say embalming, that’s a popular option,” one of my funeral-planning teammates suggested.

“Yeah, it’s a popular option here, in the States,” I reminded. “But not even everyone in the United States wants to be embalmed. Entire groups of people would still be left out.”

It’s just flat-out impossible to sprinkle someone’s cremains and simultaneously embalm their body. It’s just not going to happen. And someone looking for an all-natural, just-dig-a-hole-and-throw-me-in-it-style burial won’t want all the embalming chemicals, and they’re not going to want their body sprinkled somewhere like crumbs being shaken onto the ground off a picnic blanket, either.

Then there are always the more unusual options, like cryogenics or allowing the corpse to rot (yeah, it’s not really my first choice either) or possibly even rockets (well, at least in a universe infested with super heroes). That’s not even all of the options when it comes to deciding what the heck to do with someone’s body!

Therefore, whatever we did with the body of our deceased crime fightin’ gal, someone was, inevitably, not going to be a happy camper. Some entire culture, if not multiple cultures, would feel forgotten or completely offended. At least a dozen sacred religious traditions would be violated. And there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.

We couldn’t even decide what to do with the body let alone what type of funeral service we’d have. Would it be somber or celebratory like a wake? Would it be religious — and, if so, what religious traditions would it follow — or secular?

“Why didn’t Wonder Woman just say what she wanted?” one of my partners said in exasperation. “Then, even if people didn’t like it we could at least tell them that it’s what she wanted — that it was honoring her wishes.” But now all the blame for this imaginary funeral planning would fall squarely on our shoulders. However, unfortunately for us, Wonder Woman hadn’t considered the level of stress and frustration her vague request would cause her poor funeral planners in their sociology class.

As I weighed various personal, cultural, and religious reasons for cremation versus embalming, it suddenly occurred to me that “don’t spend a lot of money” — my only stipulation for my own funeral and body disposition — was just as impractical and potentially problematic as Wonder Woman’s request.

No matter how well my family knew me they would still be left guessing about the specifics: Would she have preferred embalming, cremation, or an earth burial? What about a viewing? Would she have wanted specific music or a slideshow at the funeral? Would she have wanted a funeral at all? And if so, should it be a secular or religious? Or some combination of the two? And what about a grave marker?

I realized not giving my family any details would be like when a friend says, “Oh, you know what I like…” in response to what she wants for lunch. Instead of her non-specific order helping the situation by making it less complicated, it just makes things unnecessarily difficult for everyone (Does she want a hamburger or a cheeseburger? What size fries? Would she want a drink? Diet or regular?).

Whether I want my family fretting about my funeral or not, they will. And unlike Wonder Woman’s funeral planners, who were sitting comfortably in their Sociology of Death and Dying classroom, their biggest concern being the upcoming midterm, my relatives will also be grieving. They’ll be mourning, overwhelmed with options, and unsure what I would’ve really wanted.

While it might be impossible to please all the inhabitants of Earth the way Wonder Woman had naively hoped, I can at least take some of the future burden of funeral planning off of my family members by making my final order a little less vague…

Fries, and supersize ’em.

Comments on How planning Wonder Woman’s funeral made me plan my own as a gift to my family

  1. omg yes. Death of a loved one is already so complicated. My mother in law passed away in July, and we were SO glad that she was specific about what she wanted. While the cost was daunting, we could at least answer questions and plan for it and know that it was, in fact, what SHE wanted so that any naysayers would have to put aside their comments. I still need to put together my own will, but that information will be in it, so that all they have to do is read it and show it to the relevant parties. ^_-

    • This may differ by country, but some places the will is not read until after the funeral – in that case it’s better to have a separate document for funeral wishes and either let people know where to look when the time comes, give a copy to those most likely to be making the arrangements or lodge a copy with a solicitor/lawyer.

      Aside from that it’s good not to be too prescriptive and land family and friends with being unable to fulfill a specific request and having to deal with that while grief-stricken.

  2. My grandparents prepaid their funerals, about 12 years before my grandfather died (grandmother is still alive). All we had/have to do is write the obit and pick out flowers. And pay the difference on a few things (obit in the paper). It was so nice knowing my grandfather was getting what he wanted, and we didn’t have to take cost into account for most of it. I am trying to get my parents to do the same.

  3. I find this so fascinating. My family seems to be the complete opposite; the funeral and post-death stuff isn’t about what the dead person would have wanted, it’s about what the survivors need to grieve and move on. My grandfather was somewhat anti-religious, but my parents are quite religious, so despite the fact that he would not have wanted it, they held a mass in his honor and did some religious things. Because they needed it. And I think my family would realize that I would want them to do whatever would make them happiest. I can tell them to have a wake/party, in the hopes that they would realize that I don’t want them to feel guilty if they’re not wailing and mourning. But then they might actually need to mourn and I don’t want them feeling guilty that they’re sad at my wake when I wanted them to be happy! I guess the best I can do is make sure they know that I really don’t care, that I just want them to do whatever they feel they need.

    • Oh man, I would rise from the grave and zombie-murder my family if they gave me a religious funeral. 😉

      That guy I married and I have a pact to keep our families from giving us religious funerals (you know, should we not die together in a horrible accident — then we’re totally fucked… in more than one way).

    • My family is very much not that way (my parents have both already reserved plots through their church, and started asking if we wanted to as well), but both me and my husband are. So far I’ve been going “well, if it came down to it, I’d prefer cremation and if there had to be some sort of monument to me, make it, like, a park bench or something useful, but at that point I’m pretty sure I’ll be dead and won’t be caring about that kind of stuff.” I’m of the general opinion that I’ll be done with my body, so do whatever you want with it.

      Of course, when I do get around to making a will, I’ll be specifying that hubby gets veto rights on everything, since he knows me best, that any children have to make the decision democratically amongst themselves (as one of six kids, I know how quickly decisions not made collectively can cause fights), and I’ll outline my preferences as the ultimate source to go back on if people are too overwhelmed to make decisions or if theres differences of opinions that can’t be resolved.

      • Making collective decisions only works when siblings actually know how to get along. A lot of inheritance fights start when the parents make all the kids agree on something.
        The sucky thing about death of a loved one is that it can make us act in ways that aren’t typical. So the usually laid back sibling might try to run the show, and that really rocks the boat.

    • My parents have always expressed their belief that funerals are for everyone else. But I think basic plans, like religious vs non-religious needs to be based on the beliefs of the deceased.
      Like, I know I want someone to pray for my soul when I die. If someone picks a secular ceremony, I’m not certain to get that thing I believe in.

    • I think it’s a balance for me. I know my mum was relieved when her mum told her (only shortly before she died) what she wanted for her funeral. Because that’s a real comfort, not to have to organise everything. That said, if I was to die before my parents, I would not resent them having a religious funeral for me.

      I’ve not written down any plans, but I would have to think of a way of specifying things without denying my family what they want… hmm…

      I guess it comes down to what you feel strongly about. I feel strongly about organ donation, and have carried a card since I was 14 (the youngest you can do it in the UK). I feel much less strongly about the content or location of my funeral, because – you know – I won’t be there.

  4. My grandfather had all sorts of bizzare demands for his funeral, so it’s not always better to know what they want.

    For Wonder Woman I would go with ancient Greek funeral rites (since the whole Amazon mythology originated there).

  5. I just want to provide alternative options.

    Donating a body to science is a wonderful way to help the community as well as curb a lot of funeral costs. I was financially responsible for my mother’s funeral when I was 25 years old – and I would have gone that route had I know I would have gotten her ashes back. (This is based in the United States)

    That said, the conversation is important to have. My mom did not want a service or anything at all, which is just as difficult as not knowing what she wanted because the rest of my family flipped out.

    I have a pact with my husband, that I would like to be donated to science, but if he feels he needs something else then he is free to do as he wishes to get closure.

    • I studied anatomy and body donation is a truly wonderful gift. I learned a lot and it was a wonderful experience (http://www.misssellany.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/dead-people-are-people-too.html) In the UK I believe you can only donate your body to a licensed anatomy department and at my university there is an annual service for all that year’s donors (which could potentially get around an issue like your mom not wanting a service but family feeling the need for something) that is attended by all the students and families of donors. I believe many families also have small private servicescloser to the time of death. Fortunately this year’s students meet next year’s donors’ families so there’s no awkward issues of strong family resemblances!

      When I studied, anatomy departments could keep and use bodies for up to three years and thereafter they were either cremated and scattered at our anatomy memorial in a cemetery near the sea, or returned to the families for cremation or burial.

      It can be a bit hectic to have a family member donate their body as they have to be received by the anatomy department less than 48 hours after death, so there’s very little time to say goodbye with their actual body present. It is usual for the donor themselves to sort out all the paperwork prior to death, but their executor or next of kin can do it after death as long as they have no reason to believe that the donor would object.

      • My grandmother died a few months ago, and after her memorial service I asked my mom, “Um, so where IS grandma now?” and I was told that she had donated her body to science. I already thought grandma was awesome, but for me that kicked things up a few notches. Made me proud. 🙂

        Also, I learned that it was challenging for them to donate her body. Apparently the organization they had originally settled on before her death only took bodies if they had unbroken skin, but my grandmother had a cut on her arm that had not fully healed. Thankfully the home nurse who happened to be there when she died

        I don’t mean to be gruesome, but I share this story to remind folks to consider alternatives. Maybe you want to donate your body to science, but die in car crash and aren’t eligible. Maybe you want an embalming but there isn’t a body because of a plane crash at sea. Something to think about.

    • Just another note on not wanting a service- my beloved grandfather also didn’t want a service when he passed away ten years ago, which meant that my fairly close extended family never got together to mourn him. I don’t know that it would have been any easier if we had, but it was hard being away at college and having no reason to come home and be with my mom and my aunts and uncles and cousins. I know that it was hard for my mom, too. Because of that, I firmly believe that funerals are for the living, but it can be very comforting to know that the service (or party or wake or whatever sort of gathering) is in the spirit of what the deceased wanted, like mourning/celebrating them the way they wanted to be remembered is one of the last things you get to do for them. Asking for nothing seemed worse than not asking for anything. At least when they ask for nothing, you can do your best to come up with something that is meaningful. If you can’t do anything, you still have to mourn, but it is difficult to find any meaning in that mourning when you have to do it all by yourself, on your own time.

  6. Also remember, if your family doesn’t know you are an organ donor, you aren’t. I remind my DH once a year (usually around my birthday) and more explicitly every time I renew my driver’s licence, that I want to be an organ donor. I hope he doesn’t have to make that decision for me, but if he does, I want him to know that he should make the donations (within the typical regulations of our religion).

    • Depends where you are – I believe they recently changed the law in the UK so that the family cannot override your wishes. If you’re on the register, you’re an organ donor. It’s good to know the law in your area.

      Still, always best to tell your family so they know your wishes!

  7. This is so relevant to me right now.

    My father passed away in July after a battle with cancer, and being the lovely, laid back man that he was… didn’t give me or my sister any specific funeral instructions asides from the music he wanted played. As a result, when it came to organising the funeral, on one hand we had my dad’s cousin who was adamant he told her he wanted a burial (and his sister agreed with her), then on the other hand my sister who thought he had wanted a cremation, and his friends who were adamant he had talked about a cremation. Personally, I didn’t think he would have minded either way! We saw the costs of the burial (over £5k!) and quickly realised that firstly, we couldn’t actually afford it, given what was available to us in his bank account. And also that he would have hated us to spend £5k on his funeral (though his family didn’t seem to understand that!).

    It’s ended up being a very stressful, upsetting process. We tried to please everyone by giving him a Catholic service to please the family (he was raised a Catholic but didn’t practice it much and I know he believed in reincarnation!!) but then a cremation – and we decided to put the money we saved on a burial in a trust fund for our future children, who dad so desperately wanted to meet and now won’t have the chance. Even though we tried to reach a happy medium to keep the family happy, my dad’s cousin and sister ended up unhappy with our decision and refused to come to the crematorium or the interment of his ashes. After the wake, my auntie invited all the family & cousins back to her house for drinks and didn’t invite my sister and I.

    Needless to say, their behaviour has been really upsetting to me and my sister, and not, I believe, how dad would have wanted them to behave to his two daughters. As a result of all this we’re now unlikely to speak to them or see them again.

    I’m so sad that a small thing like this has caused a huge rift in our family, and at the time I must admit we did all say to ourselves “dad…why didn’t you just tell us what you wanted?!” He was so amicable and laid back about it that he didn’t specify any clear instructions – if he had, it would have been easier to push back on all the differing ideas about ‘what was right’ and tell everyone we were following his wishes.

  8. I grew up having my parents point out types of caskets they liked or directions they wanted. I teased my mom that she should just buy her casket if she was going to be particular but I have also seriously stated to my parents that they need to write this stuff down. My dad has remarried so it is likely that his wife will be the one having to deal with the decisions (1950s and 60s music, a party, costumes, those all seem right) but my mom will be my responsibility. We have talked about what to do with the body, partially from a conversation about my grandma whose health isn’t great. We voted for having both of them turned into diamonds and made into jewellery. That way when my grandma passes my mom can wear a pendant and then after my mom passes, I get earrings. We both loved the idea and only wish that my grandma was in good enough health that we could tell her. Pretty sure she’d like that. I’ve gone over living will stuff with my mother also. Once you’ve had a family member be in ill health, you start thinking about that stuff. You can get documents to list out your choices, down to which organs you are okay with donating, when you want to be resuscitated, etc. My husband is pretty uncomfortable with all this still but being as my family is aging, I am pretty glad we’re talking about this stuff.

  9. I am going thru this problem now. My ex-husband ( who we have had NO contact with in 19 years!) has passed away. His youngest son from his first marriage is next-of-kin, and because everyone is poor, he will probably have to give over his rights for the city to “take care of” the body. My 21 year old daughter is at a loss – she doesn’t know what to feel, she didn’t get to confront him about his absence in her life, and there is no closure-no service, and no place to mourn. We are trying to decide on something we can do so that she can have some closure. Any thoughts??

    Also, to Little Red Lupine, just had a conversation about ashes to diamonds. The cost? Plan on $10,000 to $20,000 per diamond!!

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