Being an good mother, I decided it was an excellent idea to prepare the children ahead of time for the viewing on the day before the funeral. Consequently, I broached the topic as we were in the car headed to Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Me: You two have never really been to a memorial service. What we're going to now is a viewing, where everyone can come and say their own good-bye to the person who died, and comfort his family. We're there to tell Elena how much we love her and miss her, but you should know that there will also be a dead body there.
My son: I have too been to a funeral.
Me: You were two, so I don't think you remember.
Him: But I have been to one.
My daughter: Was I there?
Me: Yes, but you were a little baby.
Me: So, you understand about the coffin?
Him: How can they do that? Won't the body be gross?
Me: Well, that's what morticians do. It's their job to get the body ready to be buried. Or, they can also get it ready to be cremated.
Her: I would hate to have that job.
Him: If you get cremated, you turn into ashes, right? Wouldn't there be bones left over?
Me: No, they have special ovens that are very hot. Afterwards, your family gets the ashes and they can either keep them, like in the movies when someone spills a jar of dust on the floor and says "Oops, that was my mom!", or...
[Fit of giggles from the back seat]
Me: ...scatter them somewhere that was special to you. Grandma wants to be cremated and have her ashes spread over the ocean.
Her: And have the fishes eat her?
Me: I think she just likes the idea of floating all over the world.
Her: I think the fish would eat her before she got too far.
Him: I would want my ashes to be scattered over the 101 freeway. So if you hit a bump in the road, it would be me.
[Gales of laughter. Sustained for several minutes]
Me: You can also donate your body parts to science, to help people who might need an eye, or a kidney, or so they can study the disease that killed you.
Her: A dead eye can't see. That would be a total rip-off for the person who got it.
Him: How do they know which one to do with your body?
Me: You write it down in your will.
Her: Do you have a will?
Her: Can I have one?
Him: How much money do I get?
Me: A will is important so your family knows your wishes about all of your things when you die, and especially what to do about your children.
[A discussion ensues about what will happen to them. General satisfaction after many detailed questions, although I make it clear that the outcome will vary widely depending on whether we die tomorrow or when they are in their mid-30s and don't need to have a grown up drive them to school.]
Her: In my will, I am going to make sure that he doesn't get any of my stuff.
Him: You don't have any stuff that I want, anyway.
Me: Guys, please. Do you have any more questions about what's going to happen today?
Her: Do we each get to throw some dirt on the coffin? I think I would be good at that.
[I decide they are ready, and change the subject]
When we get back in the car after the visit, there are audible exhalations after the strain of all the good behavior. Then I hear:
Mom, how do you know what happens after? After you die, I mean. Are you still there, somehow?
Me: The real answer is, noone knows. But I like to think you are, to everyone who loves you. You will always be there for them.
They are both quiet for a long time. Nobody laughs on the way home.