Comedy Is Easy, Dying Is Hard

‘I don’t want to be buried in Jersey,” my husband quipped the first time I raised the issue of an exit plan. We’re comedy writers, and though I had always enjoyed Martin’s jokes, I needed him to take this seriously.

“Where do you want to be?” I asked.

“Here,” he answered. “I plan on staying alive. It’s like a summer house. If you own it, you’ll end up going there.”

“I love the building, too,” I said. “But the staff isn’t prepared to do embalming.”

We both used humor to avoid unpleasant conversations, and this was certainly the most painful. In addition to being marriage partners for 36 years, we’d been a script writing team. Together 24/7, we got used to finishing the other’s sentences and sandwiches. The prospect of one of us outliving the other was horrific. A few years ago I joked, “Maybe we should book a flight on Malaysian Airlines.”

Martin and I have had no trouble choosing where to live, but figuring out how to die was impossible. His trying to ignore it only made me more anxious. I’m a planner. When choosing a hotel, I read every post on Trip Advisor, and I make my way through all the comments on Yelp before going to a restaurant. I couldn’t do anything without getting him onboard.

Long before the internet, I decided I would start the project by checking out caskets. I called the 800 number of a company that discounted them. When I tried to show Martin photos they’d sent, he turned away and said, “Just put me in a pine box.”

“You shopped for weeks before choosing a guitar case,” I said. “This is far more important. What do you think of ‘the Harrison’?” I held up the glossy shot of a bronze casket with velvet lining that, for some reason, was perched on a faux beach.

Without looking, Martin said, “Those aren’t Jewish caskets.” He knew by the names — the Dartmouth, Winston and Grant. They had fancy fabrics and hardware, which observant Jews may have in their homes, but not in the hereafter.

I called the company, and a second batch of photos arrived. Martin was no more enthusiastic about ending up in the Moses, Aaron or David. A feminist, I, too, had a problem, and phoned again to say: “There’s no Miriam, no Esther, no Leah. And what about Sarah? The woman gave birth at 90. Naming a casket after her would be the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award.” He admitted they had nothing else.

This got us nowhere. How or where I ended up meant surprisingly little to me. Though the tradition was to be buried, some Jewish friends had recently been cremated, perhaps because it’s cheaper and I thought more environmentally sound. I cared less about what we chose, but was desperate to have the matter resolved.

My parents had bought plots in advance, but when my mother died I was escorted into a casket room, tasked with picking out one. Because an oak coffee table was her last purchase, I chose oak. I couldn’t bear the thought of my husband, our son, or me forced to handle these details in the throes of loss.

Martin’s father was buried in Israel on the Mount of Olives, not far from Menachem Begin. My parents were in Los Angeles, close enough to Al Jolson’s monument to hear him should he ever start singing “Mammy” again. Maybe I could lure Martin into preplanning by treating it like an after-party. “Would you want to be in Brooklyn with Sinclair Lewis and Leonard Bernstein?” I asked. He shook his head. “How about in Queens with Harry Houdini?”

Some time passed before I came up with another idea. I’d started designing mosaic items, and after doing a few pet urns it occurred to me that if Martin and I were cremated, I could design an urn for us. I wasn’t yet aware that this coincided with elderly people in New Zealand forming clubs and building their own coffins. Not only is having a hand in your final resting place cost- effective, it also offered a measure of control.

I first ran the concept by our son, suspecting — correctly, as it turned out — that if he were receptive, Martin might go along. I then nipped our dinner plates, covering an urn with the shards, and working photos of family vacations into the design. It was comforting to know that the two of us would end up together in our son’s home, but mostly I was relieved that we finally had a plan.

A few weeks ago, though, Martin announced, “I changed my mind. I’d rather be buried.” I asked why. “I’m already disintegrating,” he quipped. “I may as well stick with that.”

Resenting the fact that coffins were back on the table, I said, “I figured it out last time and I’m busy picking where to stay in Sicily. If you want to do this, you figure it out.” He remained silent. Worried that his ambivalence would return us to limbo, I said, “You have two months to make burial arrangements.” Having already Googled to see the selection, I added, “If I were you, I’d get on it. Just counting the ones that begin with ‘Mount’, there are seven in New York.”

“What happens if I don’t?” he said, teasing.

I pointed to our urn. “That’s a literal deadline,” I said.

Sybil Adelman Sage has written for “Northern Exposure” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”

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Comedy Is Easy, Dying Is Hard

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