Magazine article Commonweal

Spare Every Expense, except One: My Mother's Obituary

Magazine article Commonweal

Spare Every Expense, except One: My Mother's Obituary

Article excerpt

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 at least $2,000 to print in the Providence Journal and another $800 in the Herald News?"

"We'll take both," we said firmly. "All her friends will want to read it."

It was Jim Morse, our priest, who made the connection. "Perfect!" he said, laughing. "Pat couldn't have cared less about the superficial, about clothes or appearances or what anyone would have thought about how much her coffin cost. But words! Words were her life!"

And so we chose words to create a picture for her grandchildren, a picture to use in place of the one they had of a frail, confused old woman who frequently did not know her own name, let alone those of her children.

The obituary was the talk of the town (OK, it's a small town). At her wake, which hundreds attended, everyone was discussing what they had learned about her: how she and her sister had run a "House of Hospitality" for homeless women in New York City in the 1950s--using their own salaries to do it; how she had gone to Washington to hear Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963; how she had written a novel and articles too numerous to count; how she had campaigned for the United Farm Workers, picketing our local grocery store every Saturday for years because it carried nonunion lettuce and grapes. …

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