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TWO FUNERALS, two days apart, two grandfathers of my two sons. When my father and father-in-law died in the space of 17 days in late 2007, there wasn't a lot of time to ruminate on the meaning of it all. My wife, Sarah, and I were pretty busy booking churches, consulting priests, filing newspaper notices, writing eulogies, hiring musicians, arranging military honor guards and sorting reams of paperwork (bureaucracy outlives us all), to say nothing of having to wrangle last-minute plane tickets a week before Christmas. But all that was a sideshow. Mostly we had to deal with a couple of cold bodies.
In life both men had been devout Catholics, but one was a politically conservative advertising man, the other a leftwing journalist; you'll have to trust me that they liked each other. One was buried, one was cremated. One was embalmed, one wasn't. One had a typical American funeral-home cotillion; one was laid out at home in a homemade coffin. I could tell you that sorting out the details of these two dead fathers taught me a lot about life, which is true. But what I really want to share is that dead bodies are perfectly OK to be around, for a while.
I suppose people whose loved ones are missing in action or lost at sea might envy the rest of us, for whom death typically leaves a corpse, or in the polite language of funeral directors, "the remains." Yet for all our desire to possess this tangible evidence of a life once lived, we've become oddly squeamish about our dead. We pay an average of $6,500 for a funeral, not including cemetery costs, in part so we don't have to deal with the physical reality of death. That's 13 percent of the median American family's annual income.
Most people in the world don't spend 13 percent of anything on dead bodies, even once in a while. How we Westerners have arrived at …