For as long as I can remember, my parents have been fond of torturing us by talking about the afterlife with unseemly anticipation. My mother, in particular, has harbored a long time death wish. As a little girl, I remember feeling rather offended by the wistful quaver in her voice as she would sing: “Beyond the sunset, o blissful morning when with our Savior, heaven is begun. Earth’s toiling ended, o glorious dawning, beyond the sunset when day is done.”
“Jesus Christ!” I’d think to myself huffily. “Don’t trip over your feet in your rush to ditch your little kid!”
When my mother was diagnosed with a serious illness and given eighteen months to live (ten years ago), it looked like her dreams were finally coming true. My parents began to prepare for the end in earnest. My dad already had a suitable poster-sized photo to display at his own funeral, but my mother did not. My dad rarely gets bothered about anything, but about this particular issue he fussed endlessly. He hired a photographer to come to their apartment in Seoul to take photos of my mother. In the end he rejected every single one, because he felt that she looked too sick in all of them. (Should have taken her to Glamour Shots, Dad!) Over the next eighteen months, he rooted around in old photo albums searching for possible funeral photos. When we’d see him at Thanksgiving, or Christmas he’d find a moment when my mother wasn’t around to pull one of us aside and furtively slip us an envelope containing her photo. We inevitably viewed his choices with dismay. (Really, Dad? She’s got a poodle pama* in this photo. Ugh – not this one! Her dress is hideous!)
We kept these uncharitable thoughts to ourselves, of course, and dutifully promised our dad that we would deal with the odious task of getting the photo enlarged. We would then routinely, perhaps subconsciously, sabotage the project by putting it off until we forgot all about it…only to be reminded the next time we saw our dad and he would give us a meaningful look and ask if we’d “taken care of the thing I asked you to do.” Once, in advance of a family get-together, my sister called me in a panic and confessed to me that she’d misplaced the latest photo my dad had given her. She knew he’d ask her about it, and she couldn’t admit to him that she’d lost it…The poor man kept plying us with new photos and pestering us until at long last we finally showed him one of the photos he’d chosen, enlarged to poster size and ready to display at my mom’s funeral. Lord only knows where it’s gathering dust now…
The next issue to be sorted out was where my parents would be buried. During the worst of my mother’s illness, when she truly was close to death, my father, brother, and I helped her stagger up the mountain to the spot where her parents are buried.
My brother and I wept that day, our hearts wrung with searing grief, when our dad told us she had come to say a final goodbye to her parents because she knew she would never be able to make it back up the mountain again.
As it turned out, that indomitable old woman was able to haul herself back up the mountain again under her own steam just a few years ago.
But back then, on that terrible day on the mountainside with the chill shadow of death looming over us, we could never have imagined that we would one day stand next to her again at the gravesite years later. On that day my mother recognized the caretaker who was tending the graves. She summoned him over in her usual imperious fashion, all the more freighted by her deathly pallor. The man hustled over with a deferential air, and listened with a bowed head as she weakly gestured to a spot she had picked near her parents. She informed him in a barely audible, raspy voice that this was where she wished to be laid to rest. My father, brother and I stood there, a mute tableau of sorrow, with rivulets of burning tears trickling down our faces. I believe in a just God, because S/He meted out swift punishment to our mother for torturing us with her maudlin performance. After hearing her out, the man informed her that the mountain, (which her own father had bought), was reserved solely for members of the church he had founded, and therefore she was ineligible to be buried there.
In a final twist, later that day when my brother and I had caught our breaths after the repeated sucker punches to the gut, my dad privately complained to us that although my mother wanted to be buried with her parents, she should in fact be buried with his people, in the countryside far away from Seoul.
My siblings and I discussed this latest revelation amongst ourselves. We had always known that dying was our parents’ version of winning a trip to Disney Land, but until then – the idea of having to bury them had been purely notional. It was then that we realized we had no idea how to actually handle it. It’s not really the kind of casual conversation one wants to have, say, over Thanksgiving dinner. My parents cleared up all our doubts a couple years ago by announcing that they had purchased burial plots in Virginia. They handed each of their children identical envelopes containing maps to their adjacent plots and instructions for their funeral services, including the phone numbers for the ministers who had already agreed to officiate and instructions for how much to pay them. After a major freakout, my siblings and I finally settled down. Eventually, we even felt grateful that they had made their wishes so perfectly clear.
Our dad, who is usually fairly vague about pretty much everything else, spelled out with exacting specificity the kind of coffin he wanted: a plain, pine coffin with absolutely no decorative elements or adornments of any kind.
Thereby ensuring that everyone will think his children are a bunch of cheap $%^@s! my sister concluded.
*Korean women are required by law to get a short, homely perm (“pama”) the minute they turn 40.