Friday, December 21, 2007

Death and our last acts of community

Lots of folks have theories and opinions about the so called "poor." I invite and encounter the theories right here almost every day.

Most who comment here don't really understand poverty or what life is like inside the limits defined and imposed, often cruelly, by this reality. I know for sure that I don't really understand. I'm not poor. I've never been really poor.

I come face-to-face with my ignorance when I relate to impoverished families who must deal with the practicalities of death in the city.

What is a very poor family to do when a loved one dies?

No money.

No ability to line up credit.

No real options that they control or direct.

A loved one passes. A lifeless body must be cared for. How?

[Disclosure: On funeral expenses in general this is likely not a time for me to attempt even an approach to objectivity, having just gone through making arrangements for my father's burial. I actually have a proposal almost drafted in my imagination in which all burials are standardized with a set fee limit and very modest amenities regulated by a public institution. I also know that my ideas will never be accepted! But, back to my original subject.]

Shysters move through our neighborhoods on a regular basis selling "insurance" policies that hold out a solution for this frightening challenge facing every poor family. The promises seem wonderful, until it is time to file a claim. Amazing how the fine print disqualifies almost everyone. I know there is a special place reserved in hell for people who exploit the aging poor around the issues arising at the end of life.

How does a family with basically nothing pay for a funeral and a burial?

Bottom line: if you are poor and if your daddy dies, what do you do?

You beg for help.

You call for a family meeting. Everyone pools their almost non-existent assets. You total up your ability to pay. Then, you beg. You go to friends and neighbors. You talk to your church. It may take you weeks, but you do what you have to do to lay your loved one to rest.

Whenever I am with grief-stricken families who have no financial resources, I see the agony, the pain, the embarrassment and the desperation.

Most of us can't imagine, especially some church folks who operate out of their air tight theories about poverty and the lives of poor people.

Years ago my good friend and partner, John Greenan, told me that we should purchase land and create a cemetery and a funeral home. He had in mind the community we love and live with daily. He knows that the final and ultimate act of community involves celebrating the lives of our friends and providing a dignified and kind burial.

John always seems to get it. He keeps it real.

Most of us who seem to care never think about this inevitable human dilemma.

How do I bury my father when I have nothing?

The question is real. The answer goes to very important work.

Across the years we've helped bury lots of people.

I'm looking for land so that we can do this important work more effectively and with much more dignity.



DJG said...

You challenge me daily to think outside the box. Some boxes that I have just closed my eyes to the very existence of....

Anonymous said...

I once worked with a family who lived in a DHA project. "Certifiably" poor by any standard. To help them make ends meet, we helped out with with a small monthly sum for awhile. Later, in trying to understand why they still couldn't make it, I asked some questions about where their money went. (We knew each other well enough by now to ask.) Along with the utility bills, they were spending $125 a month (!!!) on "burial policies." These cost a ridiculous average of $25 per month per person, including for healthy children, and paid all of $5,000 to $10,000 of funeral expenses. (My own life insurance policy for $250,000 costs less!) But out of the fear you're talking about, they had spent $125 per month to make sure they could have a decent burial should one of them die - shortchanging themselves in life in the meantime. So, as you say Larry, a special place in hell indeed!

[On a side note, not sure I can go along with your same-funeral-for-everyone plan. :))