This book started as a dream some five years ago, right around the birth of my son, Jeremiah. His birth marked a distinct time in my life when I realized that I could find enough beauty in death care and enough beauty in death to sustain me as a father. When I first joined the funeral home — approximately seven years prior to Jeremiah — I was depressed, anxious and held onto a narrative about death that painted it as entirely negative. Through a number of experiences, experiences that I share in this book, that death negative narrative slowly began to change as I discovered a positive view of death that inspired me to a renewed appreciation for death care and the renewed sense that I could raise a child in this world.
Although the dream started five years ago, this book’s journey has been two years in the making. It was around July of 2015 that my agent started pitching my proposal to different publishing companies. Back in July 2015, I had a somewhat clear idea of what the book would look like, but it had yet to be written. From the beginning, it was to be a memoir that followed my journey from death to rebirth, from infertility to Jeremiah’s birth, from a death negative narrative to death positivity. But, like most memoirists, I was somewhat afraid to tell the honest truth about my life with death. I was afraid that my journey was too dark and too complicated by matters of God, death, religion, hell, and heaven for people to want to read.
I knew there’d be an interplay between my growing up around death, how my views of God affected my death negative narrative, and how my experiences in death care led to a death positive spirituality. I knew that I’d need help telling these stories in a way that was both inspiring and yet still honest about the difficulty of death. So, I was really excited when HarperOne (the spirituality imprint of HarperCollins responsible for books like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Love Wins by Rob Bell and a number of other books that found a way to deal with heavier topics while still maintaining a tone of inspiration) signed me on in September of 2015.
In the Fall of 2015, this space here on my blog became all but quiet as I started tracing my journey with the help of my wonderful editor Katy Hamilton. I kept working full-time at the funeral home, which made the writing process slower but it also kept the stories grounded and in touch with death, death care and my own personal struggles with both. It may have written a better book had I focused entirely on this book, but staying at worked helped me write compassionately from my heart about the family who lovingly dressed their deceased father for his burial. The embalming of a little girl that offered a gift back to her grieving family. The nursing home that honored a woman’s life by standing in procession as her body was taken away. The community of people with different beliefs who came together at last at a funeral. Save the introductory chapters, each chapter follows a different death story, and how that story moved me toward death positivity.
I write, as something of a thesis for the book,
“I tremble to say there’s good in death, because I’ve looked in the eyes of the grieving mother and I’ve seen the heartbreak of the stricken widow, but I’ve also seen something more in death, something good. Death’s hands aren’t all bony and cold.”
I’m both excited and nervous for this book’s release. Excited because I feel like I captured a story that will inspire, deepen and move its readers closer to embracing death and mortality. Nervous because many of these stories are written from a position of personal transparency and vulnerability.
If you’ve read my blog for a while, you may see traces of stories you’ve read here, but most of the stories are new. If you haven’t been reading my blog, the whole thing should be fresh.
Here it is. Please consider preording it by clicking the image below:
It’s been three years since my 4-year-old died from brain cancer, but sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. The memories can come roaring back in the blink of an eye, leaving me motionless, breathless, and aching. Sometimes I long to hold little Henry like I long for air. Even as I push forward, I encounter reminders of loss everywhere.
Two years ago we moved half-way across the country. In part, we moved to escape the reminders. We left behind the empty bedroom decorated in oranges and blues. We traveled 1,150 miles away from the library with the fountain in the front and story time on Tuesday mornings. We put days of driving between us and the pediatrician’s office with the green vinyl-covered chairs and matching industrial carpet. I left Henry’s shadows, but I can’t seem to outrun the reminders.
When I hear about a toddler being snatched and killed by an alligator, my blood runs cold. A weight sinks into my chest and doesn’t lift for hours. I know what it feels like to hear your child scream out in pain. I’ve walked through helplessness, terror, and disbelief. I know about the birthday parties his parents will never throw, the presents they won’t buy, the holidays that will feel somewhat empty and off. I understand the pain they’ll feel as they watch other children his age grow, enter kindergarten, and learn to ride their bikes without training wheels. I realize the strain that this type of loss will put on their relationships, perhaps even their identities. I know how, even years into the future, they’ll feel like something is missing when everyone is present.
When mass shootings occur and sacred lives are senselessly slaughtered, I am completely undone. I can’t seem to find words or formulate thoughts through a fog of horror and grief. My heart turns towards the loved ones facing funerals filled with polite and sympathetic conversation. Afterwards, they’ll watch as the shock fades for everyone else. The masses will disperse back into the groove of life while they instead limp forward, tired, cautious, acutely aware of the cruelty this world can dish out. There will be no going back to “normal.” Normal is forever changed. They are forever changed.
And when I come across yet another Facebook status about yet another child diagnosed with terminal cancer, I freeze. I spend a few moments locked in the painful silence of remembering, reliving, dreading for them what lies ahead. We live in a world where pain is everywhere.
Why is the world this way? How do we make sense of all this? As a Christian, I’ve turned to faith for answers. But sometimes faith can bring more questions. For example, the Bible says that God is all-powerful. Can’t God stop an alligator? Or vaporize a tumor? Scripture also says that God is love. Doesn’t God want to paralyze a gunman with murder on his mind?
Does God lack the power or the desire to prevent unspeakable pain?
I know I’m not the only one who has wrestled with this question. Some of you may have wondered: Did God lack the power or the desire to prevent my rape? My miscarriage? My cancer?
Some Christians attempt to answer these questions with phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” and “Sometimes we just can’t see what God’s doing when our eyes are blurry with tears.” Other times we’re told that suffering is “sent to refine us,” is a “blessing in disguise,” or is simply a necessary part of “God’s plan to glorify himself.”
These ideas stem from the assumption that everything is happening according to God’s perfect plan – his meticulous, divine blueprint. But I think it’s time to question that assumption.
After all, how can we call God love if God is the one orchestrating our devastation?
How can we sincerely worship a God whose glory-seeking plan requires alligator teeth in toddler flesh, bullets spraying through a crowd, or terminal brain cancer in a 4-year-old?
How could this God be considered praiseworthy? If God plans all our pain in minuscule detail, then his character doesn’t strike me as loving or praiseworthy. At best, it seems mysterious; at worst, it seems sadistic.
Finally, how do we reconcile this picture of God with God’s self-revelation in Jesus? The Bible says Jesus was the exact representation of God’s essence (Heb. 1:3). Yet when we look to Jesus’ ministry, we see a God who healed the broken… he didn’t break the healthy to glorify himself. Does God in Spirit hold a different standard of morality than his flesh-and-bones representation?
Several years ago, I began to compare God’s self-revelation in Jesus to my picture of a God who designs humanity’s suffering. That’s when I discovered a huge chasm. And during the process of engaging my questions, I found new, more satisfying answers.
Now I stand with a growing number of Christians who think it’s time for us to take another look at one of the most important questions in the world: If God is loving and all-powerful, why do we suffer? In my experience, the answer points us to a God who is more stunningly beautiful, more pure, and more loving than most of us have ever dared to imagine.
Find Jessica Kelley’s book on Amazon: Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death.
Kelley is a writer, speaker, and author of Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, (Herald Press, April 2016). She has a B.S. in Psychology, a M.S. in Counseling & Human Development, and experience as a School Counselor. Born and raised in the South, Jessica now lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She survives the absurdly long winters by going to the gym, dreaming about the beach, and eating copious amounts of chocolate. You can find her processing her faith journey at JessicaKelley.com.
Today’s guest post is written by NYC Funeral Director Amy Cunningham:
It seems fitting to reveal on Saint Patrick’s Day that the most common Google query that reliably draws readers to “The Inspired Funeral” day after day, week after week, is “Irish Funeral Music.” The last Irish funeral music post I wrote, garnered me tens-of-thousands of page views. Either the Irish are needing to know what is traditional or new to their own funerals, or those who aren’t Irish want to convey an Irish vibe to the festivities.
So lately, in my effort to be of sound funeral planning assistance, I’ve been fixated on how to make “Danny Boy,” the most famous of all Irish funeral ballads, new again. Can the beloved, seasoned, ever-so-classic-you-can’t-believe-they’re-trotting-it-out-again ballad be even more heart warming than it already is? Yes, it’s terrific–a total knock-out, in fact– sung in the classic mode by a male tenor, but here are some ideas you might consider when confronted with a funeral where “Danny Boy” is requested.
1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON’T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that by the time most singers get to the best, most moving lines, we listeners have been lulled into a sad, sweet snooze. (Take note, in stanza three: an “Ave” means “a prayer.”)
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.
And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.
And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.
2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here’s a super great “Danny Boy,” totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here’s Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you’re bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here’s “Danny Boy” played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.
3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing “Danny Boy” beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered “Danny Boy” is Sinead O’Connor’s, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any “Danny Boy” funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don’t neglect the grandchildren! They can sing “Danny Boy” at a grandfather’s funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance).
4. FINALLY, CONSIDER EMPLOYING A MORE UPBEAT “DANNY BOY” AFTER THE FUNERAL’S CLOSING. This idea might not be everyone’s pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine “Danny Boy” played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it’s okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves–goddamnit– to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.
About the author: Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director and funeral celebrant especially passionate about getting families back involved in more personalized planning. She lectures on back-to-basics funeral planning and the greening of the industry. In her prior life she was a magazine journalist who wrote for Parenting, More, Glamour, and the Washington Post magazine. She is an active member of the National Home Funeral Association and ICCFA.
She writes a blog called TheInspiredFuneral.com
Today’s guest post is written by Sara LeeAnn Pryde.
“Speaking of dead moms…” As if one can delicately work that into polite conversation. Which is why today is so impossible. Every year on January 29th – what would have been my mother’s birthday – my sisters and I wake up to our lives and feel numb. Angry. Empty. Anguished. And inconvenienced at having to pretend it’s just another day. And yet, it is. That’s the added insult to the injury of death, isn’t it? That the world should continue on when we can’t possibly?
For weeks leading up to our mother’s would-be-birthday, we dream of her. A dim, golden-haired waif whose face we can either recall with perfect clarity or never quite make out; so, we wake up on the 29th bloody tired, sometimes wishing we hadn’t, wishing we could stay beside her awhile longer.
I brew a pot of coffee, thick as mud, and trip over my accursed cats. How can they think of food today? Some 1200 miles away in California, my sister Brynn begrudgingly slaps the snooze button and buries her head. Not far south in a neighboring city, our sister Chelsie lifts her chunky, blue-eyed infant from the crib and feels her own burn with unshed tears. Ocean eyes, like our mother’s.
The clock is running and daily life proceeds as usual, but we three are frozen in time. We are thinking of our mom. We may want to talk about her, to say her name aloud… but our significant others have never met her, don’t remember what today is, or at least not what it means to us. We may want to hide from it altogether, and are grateful our friends and co-workers are as clueless as the bank teller or grocery clerk.
I sit down to write a tribute to my mother that will do my sisters proud, but I can’t find the words. How can I tell who she was to me? How can I tell why my own identity have splintered in her absence? How can I tell that losing her was more than just a tragic accident? How, especially when we haven’t reconciled that it was an accident at all? How can I breathe to life what is, some days, such a damn, diaphanous mystery?
Cindy was… Our mom was… magic. All smoke and mirrors and sparkle and magic.
And one day she just disappeared for real.
I gave up my memoir and went out instead to buy a bulk-sized bag of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans. They were mom’s favorites – especially the black licorice flavored. She and I would always fight over the licorice ones. The grocery clerk didn’t ask about my dead mom. He asked me about snowfall and if I’d had a pleasant new years’. I resisted the urge to punch him and cried in the car.
Back at home, I rummaged through my kitchen cabinets and art supplies and crafted a ridiculously cheerful Jelly Belly centerpiece on the dining table. Then I ate every single black jelly bean in memory of her.
Sometimes speaking of death isn’t necessary, and sometimes sharing it isn’t possible. We do as we do to get through. We eat the black jelly beans.
About the author: Sara LeeAnn Pryde is an enigma wrapped in a question mark behind a coat of winged eyeliner. She’s moonlighted as a massage therapist, optometric assistant, erotica photographer, small business owner and social media manager, but if you ask what she does for a living, she’ll laugh and ask you if that’s the most interesting question you can come up with.
Today’s guest post is written Caleb Cook:
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged my hometown of Pass Christian, MS I was left with next to nothing. My belongings were either swept into the back bay near Bay St. Louis, or left soaked with only what could be described as a toxic gumbo of mold, brackish water, and sewage. The few things I had left were a few books of poetry and some CD’s, the stuff that would fit into a 98 Kia Sephia.
I was 18, fresh out of graduating high school and only a few weeks into my freshmen year of college when Hurricane Katrina hit. With the feelings of summer still in the air I made the rushed decision to take the destruction of my life and turn it into a way out. I needed money and an apartment, my parents and siblings were living in Florida temporary. So without guidance I hastily quit school and decided to find work. The odd jobs were relentless, back breaking in fact, like helping gut houses out in my town to where there was nothing left but a solid shell, everything gone except wood. Others included laying tile or landscaping; stuff I admittedly wasn’t in love with doing.
Soon thereafter, I was offered the opportunity to work for a DME company delivering Durable Medical Equipment from a friend who had lost everything just as I had done. The job was simple, I was to deliver the equipment to homes and hospitals. The equipment ranged from hospital beds, bed side commodes, oxygen and the related stuff. I was to also show the patients how to use the equipment after I assembled it all. My deliveries took me all over South Mississippi into patients homes and nursing homes. I dealt daily with hospice patients, people with a mere hours left to live, their families, and a vast array of folks from every walk of life.
One delivery stands out more than any of them in my mind. It was early fall almost dusk, when I got the ticket to fix a hospital bed and move it from one room to the next. The delivery was the last one of a long ass day, a Friday to be exact. I could practically taste the freedom of the weekend. This particular delivery would offer a challenge I was getting used to: It was in a FEMA trailer, at a lot off of I-10 in Gulfport. These trailers were small and often challenging maneuvering bulky equipment around. Needless to say I was ready for this problem and expected to be in and out.
I knocked on the door and a polite elderly lady answered, the patient was her husband, a senior with terminal brain cancer. He was sitting in a wheelchair in front of the TV asleep. She proceeded to show me the room and I began the process of disassembling the bed. I was sweating as it was hot inside the trailer as was most homes I visited. The bed was taken apart with ease and soon I was setting it back up in the adjacent room. It was then I hear a big loud THUD. The women begans crying “Help Me!” I immediately run into the living room to find the patient on the floor. The women pleading for my response, my help.
Except I, by law, could not under any circumstance touch the patient. Hypothetically if I did help, and the patient was to die I could be arrested, sued or fired. This was explained to me countless times during my job orientation months prior. So I did what any 18 year old would do, I ran. I ran outside and into the safety of my work van. I called my boss, who we will name Ralph. Ralph proceeded to tell me to get the signature for delivery and GET OUT of there. He would call the hospice nurse in charge of the patient or an EMT. His voice was of concern, but also nervousness for me his youngest delivery driver ever. I was scared and morally confused about what I should do.
I would like to say I gave in to the pleads and cries by offering my hand of help. However I can not say I manned up because I was still a boy trapped in this strange land between Hurricane Katrina destruction, medical equipment, hospice, death, and mostly fear. I left the FEMA trailer and never looked back. As I returned to the warehouse, Ralph my boss only offered a simple “Are you okay?” and that was that.
6 months later I was home from work watching the local nightly news when a photo of this couple flashed on my TV. They had been murdered in cold blood and the killers were arrested soon after. They were looking for money, one was a neighbor in the park who occasionally took care of the man. My heart sank and then shattered into a million pieces. All I could think of was how I left that couple months prior. How she was crying, and pleading with no physical strength to lift him off that cold, dank, FEMA trailer floor. I left somebody when they were in need and at the end of their life. I began to cry, the cry only a kid of now 19 can cry when his heart is broken. My body still aches with regret.
The next day at work I was given the ticket from FEMA to pick up our equipment from the crime scene so they can move the FEMA trailer out of the park. This pick up would alter me and change me from a boy to a man. At about 11am on a cloudy February day I pulled into the park off of I-10. I had to pick up the bed, oxygen, commode, wheelchair, and a shower chair. The same wheelchair the man fell out of and onto the floor. I felt, as if in this moment Deja Vu and Karma were real. I felt as if God was playing a cruel trick on me by making me relive my regret.
I assumed the equipment would be outside the trailer waiting, and that a clean up crew would have already cleaned the trailer. I never in a million years would have thought I would be going inside this place. The equipment was not outside, it was still inside and I discovered this as I was greeted by a FEMA official smoking a cigarette near the entrance of a door. The glass on the door had been knocked out and police tape was blocking the entrance.
“This is my first time inside,” the FEMA official declared. With a solemn look on her face. I said “It’s my second.” She looked confused.
I realized the reason she was smoking was because it was to cover the smell, she explained to me that the bodies were discovered about 6 days after they were murdered. She also explained that in the police reports she received, that the killers “Not only murdered the couple, but turned the heater on to its maximum temp, as well as turning on the oven and burners. They did this in hopes of killing the dog, and at this point killing the bedridden husband from heat exhaustion.”
She opened the trailer with a set of shiny jangling keys, which I noticed had a smiley keychain on it. The smell instantly hit my nostrils, it was a smell that almost a decade later I still smell from time to time like a phantom of harshness, or the God of Regret punching me in the face. There was a pull of blood and what I assumed was coagulated yellow bile hardened on the floor a mere foot from the door. That was the spot she died. She was shot to death with, an unknown to me, amount of bullets. There were bullet holes in the recliner where she was sitting when she was killed. The living room trashed, with furniture overturned and obviously ransacked. There were bloody footsteps leading into the kitchen before they trailed off down the narrow hall. Around the oven there was plastic cooking spoons partially melted from the heat.
His room was basically untouched from the way I left it that day months ago. There was no sign of struggle or anything just the makings of a robbery gone bad. The pick up of the equipment was without trouble, I got in and got out. Filled with sadness, and regret I finished the order in a half an hour. After it was all said and done the FEMA official closed the door and locked it. She explained that they would come to pick up the trailer in a few days and maybe burn it but she wasn’t sure. She offered me a cigarette, I accepted. Then she drove away without saying a word, never knowing my story of guilt and regret with this couple. I took a drag of the cigarette and immediately vomited on my boots.
I’m 28 years old now and I often think about the delivery, the couple, the murder and that trailer. I replay those scenes in my head like a movie, or maybe it’s just me trying to keep their ghost alive, like a family members who passed away suddenly. I like to say I have no regrets in life, but that would be a lie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caleb Cook currently resides in Birmingham, AL and is the author of 4 books of poetry including “Troubleshooting for the Modern Soul” and “The World All Strung Out”. When he isn’t writing he is a father, husband, and chef.