Death becomes us 

Making a funeral home.... fun?

I've had death on the brain for weeks.

For no particular reason, really, other than I attended a ribbon cutting for the new Families First funeral home. And the obvious fact that it's, y'know, looming over all of us every single day.

Generally, I'm far too busy to entertain such existential angst, preferring to count my blessings and then multiply them exponentially by the power of positive thinking, like Tony Robbins and Isaac Newton are playing pattycake in my psyche. (My theory is that if the math nerds ever team up with the New Age creatives, they will be unstoppable.)

But sometimes, the finitude of it all hits me. My little brother turned 40 recently, and though he'll never be too old to sock in the arm, I felt no urge for any Big Sis jeering when he expressed that milestone birthdays are freaky because they remind us that our time is limited.

"Life is so amazing, I just don't want it to ever end," he sighed from three time zones away, so I couldn't punch him even if I wanted to.

Like many accomplished people, my Brother the Doctor has a long and impressive bucket list with checkmarks already next to activities like "perform goiter surgery in Tanzania" and "marry gorgeous French girl who cooks." Best case scenario, he's only got 60 more years to perfect his Mandarin, cure cancer and jog around the moon.

Then there's me, the older sibling, who doesn't keep so much a bucket list as a junk drawer full of half-baked poetry and the hairbrush microphone used by my 8-year old rock star self while emulating Joan Jett.

Yet no matter how cluttered or streamlined our goals, surely all of us can get behind that 19th-century master of melancholy navelgazing, Soren Kierkegaard, who coined the confounding observation that "life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards."

It's important to note that even if you veer off sideways into the weeds while texting, we're all still heading in the same direction.

Frankly, all this amateur philosophizing has made me rather morbid to be around.

"I liked it better when you were obsessing over the developers across the street," grumbled my husband.

But whether you believe the greatest glory is yet to come or that the end of this meat puppet show brings nothing more than a permanent dirt nap, truth remains that not a one of us is getting out of here alive (a curtsey to you, Jim Morrison.) I'm just trying to be OK with that.

Apparently the key is not to take the very serious matter of death so seriously that it overwhelms everything else. As a trauma surgeon, my bro faces down death every day; that likely drives his will to live hard and live well. (Our inherited sick sense of humor probably helps, too.)

I imagine all those who deal with death on a daily basis find ways to adapt their minds and hearts to this whole inescapable business.

I asked several people about it at that Families First funeral home ribbon cutting, which you might have expected to be a fairly somber affair. But my gothic mood found little company at the new facility on Dean Forest Road, where the parking lot was set up with festive tents and big bouncy décor by Art Pop Balloons. Folks ogled the fancy vintage Rolls Royce hearse as musician Melvin Dean tapped out a melodious cacophony on his steel drums.

Steel drums. At the funeral home. It was surreal. And fantastic.

But what else to expect from the inimitable Scott West? When the marketing guru and inventive party planner was brought on to celebrate the opening of Savannah's first affordable funeral and cremation facility, he saw nothing but potential. Rather than tiptoe around Death's everpresent gloom, Scott invited it to the party and offered it a cocktail.

Jozef's Fine Catering baked up a red velvet cake in the shape of a coffin. Guests peered into the floor drain during a tour of the high-tech preparation room.

Hilarious puns abounded involving the "fun" in funeral and getting "embombed" at the bar set up in front of the wooden casket.

President Kyle Nikola seemed a bit bewildered by the revelry. A native New Jerseyian with surfer guy good looks, Nikola has planted deep roots in Savannah but is still learning our practice of making a party out of any gathering.

At only 26, Nikola has earned the respect of his industry and taken the helm of the family business, which includes two more funeral homes and all of Savannah's perpetual care cemeteries. He spoke earnestly of the Families First purpose: To provide a respectful way to bury loved ones without bankrupting anyone's life savings (a complete funeral is less than $3,000, casket included.) E

ventually, however, Nikola had to give in to the laughter roiling from the tastefully-decorated reception area. The time for solemnity within these walls would come soon enough.

None of this fazed the members of Savannah's end-of-life caregiving community; the nurses, the hospice workers, those who sit quietly at bedsides in the twilight. A little gallows humor is probably welcome in jobs where vigilant compassion is required at all times. In them I also found people willing to speak about eternal rest.

"Death can be a beautiful experience," counseled Nancy Neff of Coastal Home Care. "We don't have to be afraid to talk about it."

And they must, as the work of caring for the dying must include helping people be all right with fate.

"It's like being a midwife, only at the other end," remarked Beth Logan of Hospice Savannah.

To look at death as preciously as birth is a strange notion. Yet it softened my thinking, and I finally stopped wringing my hands over my inevitable demise and grabbed a drink.

Yup, a stiff one — BOOM!

My macabre preoccupation has passed for now, though I expect it will come 'round again (especially if it doesn't quit raining every damn day.) Until then, there are beaches to walk, stories to hear and hands to hold.

Best to evoke my man Kierkegaard once more: Life has its own hidden forces, which can only be discovered by living.


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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

More by Jessica Leigh Lebos


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