I've never had close, personal experience with funeral planning, monuments, obituaries, etc., until Brian died. One thing I'm grateful for is that we had good life insurance so I was able to choose what I thought he would like or what was fitting, every step of the way. Of course, it cost more to do a visitation in Des Moines and one in Muscatine, and we paid more to make both of them longer than the standard 2 hours. Of course we did, though -- everything we did was all out, all the time. Those of you who went to his 30th birthday party know "the norm" was never enough for the big guy -- he had 75 people and a live band at his birthday party. Our bar tab was something like $500 that night, but hey -- it only happens once, and I had saved up for months to give him a great celebration (the band was a surprise). I am blessed that I was able to give him the services he deserved -- hundreds of people, scores of photographs displayed, hours of his favorite music piped in, stories and memories shared by all. Of course, I wanted the biggest and best headstone, too, to commemorate the biggest and best influence in my life. It only seemed fitting.
However, choosing the headstone was so hard for me. It wasn't the selection -- I knew right away what shape, size, and color he would want -- it was actually going to look at them and place the order. It was acknowledging his death in a very concrete way -- literally carving it in stone. It was so hard to decide what would be inscribed and what wouldn't -- how do you sum up a life in just a few words, on one slab of granite? Mostly, I couldn't bear to see the headstones. It was too much to see his death date carved in stone. Unlike the obituary, the plot, the visitation and funeral (all of which you plan while still numb with shock), the stone does not have to be ordered right away. In fact, there is no reason to do so because they take a very long time to be ready from the time they are ordered. Unless you've pre-ordered one while you are living, it would never be ready in time for someone's burial.
I finally was able -- not ready, mind you, but able -- to look at headstones by the time Easter came around. This was two or three months after Brian died (I don't remember when Easter happened this year, to be honest). I went to the display room with his parents and brother to meet with the sales lady. I was on the verge of sobbing the whole time. I just couldn't stand or comprehend the fact that I was ordering a headstone for Brian -- that my husband, the love of my life, Brian Boka -- was gone. I wasn't there yet. Tears were just streaming down my face the whole time, involuntarily. There was nothing I could do to stop them. I remember Diane, Brian's mom, having to go over and get the box of tissues and bring them to me, and I remember being so angry that the sales lady had not offered them up herself even though I quite obviously needed them.
Despite my fragile state, I managed to pick a color I liked. The sales lady went on and on about where the different marbles and stones were from -- I finally think I told her I didn't care where they were from, that I knew what color I wanted and we needed to move on and get this over with. So then we started talking about sizes and shapes. I liked -- well, preferred (I hate to say "liked") -- a big one they had on display. Then I found out they couldn't do that size, that the cemetery had size restrictions. Something that would have been good to know before the appointment, or before I chose the largest one. So we found out how big we could go, and decided to go as big as we could. Then we started talking about pictures -- should we engrave an image of Brian, or go with an actual photograph? Ultimately, we decided on the actual photograph. We also wanted a vase on the stone somehow. I had kind of wanted the kind that go on the back of the stone, next to the names. Brian's mom preferred to have one on the side. The sales lady also suggested the side option, and I realized it would look nice as long as there were always flowers in it. Brian's parents assured me there would be. (Remember, he is buried in Muscatine, our hometown, so I can't be there to do that myself.) We ended up picking out a design we really liked, and finalized the wording on the stone, that day. I do remember that the sales lady mentioned vandalism over and over -- you don't want that kind of attached vase, in case the stone is vandalized, the photo will be flush with the stone and can't be pried out with a crowbar even if people try to vandalize the stone -- yes, she actually said that! -- etc. I was already on the brink of a breakdown just having to be there and do what we were doing -- that was too much! I finally had to go outside and cry. Brian's family finished up the meeting with her, and we were on our way.
We had taken notes and had a drawing of what we wanted, and we decided not to use the first company we met with (whose name I won't mention) because the experience was so traumatic and it didn't seem that the sales associate had done anything to make it easier (Um -- hello?! How about offering a blubbering widow the tissues that are sitting on your desk?!) and, in fact, she had made it more difficult with the repeated reference to vandalism and by just not letting us set the pace of the meeting. I know my emotions were high, but let me tell you -- some of the people we encountered have been wonderful and really helped us through some tough decisions, and she was not one of them! So, we went to another company with our idea.
After getting a design picked out, Brian's family and I selected a photo. I wanted a snapshot and not a staged wedding photo. Besides being staged, our wedding pictures were almost 6 years old. It took a while to choose a photo, as I wanted to make sure Brian's parents and brother approved of my choice. My first choice didn't fly, but my second one did, with some minor alterations (removing some of the background). At the same time we were selecting a photo, we were also finalizing font size, etchings, etc. for the stone with the new company. I was also planning my summer move to Austin at the same time. So things got busy and the final order was not placed -- that is, contract signed and check written out -- until mid-May. We were told at that point that it would be about eight weeks before the stone was done and installed.
Cut to mid-July. Brian's parents had been in contact with the monument company because they saw that the foundation had been poured at his grave for the headstone. They were told that the stone would not be installed until we had a chance to come look at it and approve it. I had planned to fly back to Iowa to do this, and so I could be there when it went up. I am his wife, I am the one who had final approval rights, I am the one who wrote out the check (by the way, headstones aren't cheap!). Well, on July 17 -- which happened to be six months to the day that Brian died, so it was obviously a hard day already -- Brian's family found that the stone had been erected without any notification to us. Not only that, but the photograph was not in yet (it can and will be installed later). I was devastated. Thank God the rest of the stone was right, and it really does look good -- but I would have never wanted it to be put up until it was complete and I know Brian would have felt the same way. There are some things in life (er, death?) that just have to be right, and by God, this is one of them! I was so angry that I wasn't consulted about this like I was supposed to be -- as I said, I am the wife and widow, I am the person whose name and signature are on the contract, it was my name on the check that paid for the stone and the funds came from my account! I was just appalled that this would happen, and for it to happen on July 17th was like rubbing salt in the wound. I was already feeling guilty and terrible for not being in Muscatine to spend the day with the rest of his family (his brother and nieces went back to be with the Bokas that weekend), and now, I'm the last one to see the headstone?! It made me feel like a bad wife and bad family member to my in-laws. I was ashamed that I had missed this milestone. Knowing it wasn't my fault didn't assuage my guilt and remorse, either. It really put an extra damper on an already (figuratively) cloudy day.
I expressed my extreme disappointment and frustration to the monument company and received a sincere apology. Brian's dad received a personal visit and apology at work one day from one of the owners, and we were told this would result in a change in procedure so that this never happens again. This does make me feel better, as I can't even begin to describe the trauma this caused. I really have been in a downward tailspin since the 6 month mark, and I don't know for sure how much is related to the headstone fiasco and how much would have happened naturally as part of the grieving process, but I do know that there was an impact. The length of this blog post alone tells you how much I've thought about this. For the installation to be botched in this way only dredges up all the initial feelings about this step -- the dread, apprehension, difficulty, etc.
The worst thing is that the headstone went up unfinished and without me there to see it, but this is not even the end. Twice now, the photograph (which is treated and coated and designed offsite somewhere) has come back with the wrong background. The first time, I was still in the photo (even though we expressly chose to just have Brian in it) and the background was apparently a fake light blue. Weird, ugly and not at all what we wanted. The monument company immediately recognized the mistake and re-ordered the photo. Last week, while my mom and aunt were visiting, I got an e-mail from the monument company telling me the new photo was in and they hoped I liked it. It was the wrong background again! It was the right photo, and just Brian, but the background was not the black that we selected (which, incidentally, is the actual color of the background in the photograph we submitted), but a fake brown marble-y background that: a) looks like a fake, chintzy Sears portrait screen; b) would clash with the dark gray marble of the stone; c) Brian would effing hate; and d) IS NOT WHAT WE ORDERED!!! I was so upset to see that a mistake had been made again and that the headstone would stand incomplete for an even longer time -- and this happened while I had family visiting. Not only are they robbing Brian of having his monument be complete, and not only was I robbed of the opportunity to be the first to see it -- which actually meant a lot to me -- but now, I'm being robbed of relaxed and carefree time with my family that made the 1,200 mile trip to see me. I just feel like this ordeal has been nothing but difficult and painful, and that continues to worsen.
So, we're still waiting on the correct photo to arrive and be installed. It has been over five months since we started the selection process and about three months since we finalized our order. This has been such an ordeal, and I will only feel better and get some much-needed closure on this topic once the right picture is in and installed, and when I get to be the first to see it and have that special moment with Brian. I tried so hard to pick something that would make him happy and I just want to see that come to fruition and to be there to see it happen.
On a positive note, though, those who have seen the headstone have told me how much they like it, and I really do like it too, though I'm just ready for it to be a finished product. Also, having the stone up has made it easier for our friends and family to locate his burial site. That is a good thing, as I know he'd want a lot of visitors. Just like he liked to in life.
Here are pictures of his stone. The oval is where his picture will go: