Talking to Dead People: Conversations we’ve had or would like to have had

After we lay our loved ones to rest, we sometimes think about all the questions we never asked and what we wish we had told the dearly departed before they passed away. 

Margaret often says that she kept news from her parents when they were alive, so she didn’t alarm them or have them judge her. Her actual conversations with them were often sanitized, and she realized afterward there were so many questions she had never asked but wish she had. 

Barbara feels the same way, wondering, for example, what it was like for her father, the son of immigrants to apply to medical school at age 16 and get into a top one but find out that two wouldn’t take him because of his Jewish religion. How did being excluded feel and how did that shape his life? 

Both women realized they had a solution to their conundrum: talking to the deceased, whether relatives, friends and even famous people they never knew but with whom they could now become acquainted, so to speak. For those whose graves we do get to visit, we literally speak out loud to our very captive, silent audience. And they never share the conversation as far as we know. The silence is golden. 

We have each found a great deal of solace from the ritual and in sharing this with others, we have learned that many others do so, too. It’s not spooky or morbid but rather comforting to bare our hearts and souls, share joyful events and sometimes our grievances. 

Here’s a mix of conversations we would like to have with the dearly departed, some very plausible and some imaginary and tongue and cheek: 

Relatives: Parents

Barbara and Margaret: “Hello mother, hello father. Here we are gathered at this bucolic cemetery you selected. 

“We would normally say you all look great, but we imagine you’ve seen better days. 

“What’s up?” 

No answer. 

“How are you? What a stupid question. Of course, you’re going to stiff us on any questions we ask. We know you’re dead. Unfortunately, because you are dead, we cannot ask your opinions about anything, zip, zero, nada. All we get now is the silent treatment, which is something a few of you were good at when you were alive when you got annoyed at us. 

“But it’s never too late others say or is it? So, here goes. We miss you. We have been trying hard to carry out your wishes regarding money, investments, jewelry, pets, education, all the comic books and old (wink, wink) Playboy magazines, what to do with our fathers’ screwdriver collections, the push lawn mower, hair products and cars while caring for your house or apartment and its contents. We thought you’d like to know all this, wouldn’t you?”  

Margaret: “You left behind some good memories. Great dinners, terrific wine and liquor tastings. And you were wonderful grandparents to my children. I also miss all when you, dad, would take us on family car trips, even though my sibs and I fought in the backseat. And thanks to you too, mother, for introducing me to good manners and mores, opera and classical music.” 

Barbara: “Dad, you gave me really good values, not caring about things but education, a love of career, travel, art museums and more. Thanks for not being one of those pushy, over-involved parents who insisted I do this or that and watch football with you. Thank you for encouraging us to watch ‘Perry Mason’ together, I now love British mysteries and crime series. Oh, we also had a good time watching ‘Gunsmoke’ and the ‘Perry Como’ special at Christmas time.” 

Both of us: “But that’s not why we are here talking to you today. We need to vent.” 

Margaret: “You have missed so much. First, one of your granddaughters is remarrying for the third time to a gold digger. He’s not in good health or long for this world—so move over—and her partner can’t wait to dip her fingers into our family till. We are in the process of hiding assets and precious items, so they—using the proper pronoun (the partner)--doesn’t get anything from our estate, especially the pink plastic lawn ornaments you so dearly loved. You sure upset the neighbors when you put up that flock of pink swans.” 

Barbara: “And for me, let me say, why did you ever tell some of the distant relatives that they could come into the family business when there wasn’t enough revenue for so many members? Yes, it was kind but honestly, you didn’t know what they teach now—never to let incompetents in business, especially do-nothing relatives who take, take and take! What a mess to get them out. And all that bickering and drama.” 

Both of us: “We know what you’re thinking (We have no choice but to read your minds). We bet you wish you could get out of there. But all you ever kept saying when we’d ask what you wanted for a holiday or your birthday was, ‘peace and quiet’. Well, you got your wish. As Barbara’s dad always said, ‘The only people without problems are those in the cemetery.’ Now, is that true or false? ANSWER!” 

Dead silence while we sob; one of us a bit and the other in buckets. 

Both of us: “Hello, again.” 

Barbara: “I can’t believe what you’ve missed since you’ve been gone. You should have hung around for longer. You missed Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, births and divorces! You would have loved the happy parts and maybe murdered those who caused pain. It might even have sent you to your grave earlier. We hate cliches but they can be oh so true.” 

Margaret: “Enough with all our blubbering. Now, I’ll make you laugh. You’ll love this? Remember your kookie friend and neighbor Ruby, now 92, who tried to run over her husband with a walker when she found out he was having an affair when he turned 85? Well, he died but she’s still around. Well, last week she got a tattoo on her left calf that says: I am normal with a drawing of a thermometer registered at 98.6 degrees. Not sure if she means she’s completely sane or she doesn’t have Covid-19. Have you ever? Of course, you never knew about the pandemic luckily.” 

Dead silence again. 

Relatives: Close Cousin 

Barbara: “I am really annoyed with you for dying so fast and suddenly and not letting us say our goodbyes. Yes, we talked all the time and finally visited when we could but gee whiz, we weren’t prepared. Were you? Did you know what an influence you had on so many? You should have taken better care of your health, why couldn’t you? Is your death a not-so-subtle and clever warning that we need to live healthier—fewer carbs, more exercise, not worrying, so we don’t end up yet like you? Well, you’ve made your point, you always did. However, did you have to go to this extreme? It’s just so final. You are greatly missed.” 

Relatives: Spouse 

Margaret: “Honey, how could you have left me? It was a rotten thing to do. We had planned a great retirement when we’d really do something wild, travel, volunteer and forget about doing everything for the kids.” 

Sob. Sob. 

“And there were all the things we didn’t do right. The mortgage wasn’t paid off, the hospital bills piled up, the fancy German mattress you had to buy we still owe money on along with the automatic chlorine dispenser for the pool and grossly expensive automatic inner ear cleaner that you just had to have to counteract your vertigo.”   

“I wish you could be here to see all that our kids are doing. Their loves, their likes, their partners and their marriages. 

“I am pissed that you aren’t here to fix things, kill bugs and mice and negotiate deals with the cable company or pest control firm. I’ve had to learn how to use a screwdriver, hammer a nail, seal a crack with caulk, plunge a disgusting overflowing toilet, put together the foam spewing machine for our neighbor’s grandkids (we don’t have any of our own) to play with outside in hot weather and master stuff from watching YouTube videos. The good news is, I’ve become pretty handy.   

“I also picked up a couple of your habits. I now always have to sit on an aisle seat, put the toilet paper roll sheet side down, never eat leftovers and munch buttered popcorn in bed at night while watching old movies. And I hate doing dishes even more than you did! 

“I have to go now. I am taking a course on Zoom in mushroom picking to make sure I don’t select and then eat the poisonous ones. I’ll be back soon. If you don’t hear from me, assume I flunked and ate a toxic mushroom—and not the kind that just makes you hallucinate. In that case, I’ll be joining you in the ground where we will lie side by side once again. And when I start talking, answer me loudly enough since my hearing got really bad in recent years.” 

Historical figures: Eleanor Roosevelt 

Both of us: “We hope you’re resting well, dear Eleanor. We know that you’re lying there like a statue while listening to this. Speaking of statues, we visit frequently one of the bronze statues of you at the entrance to Riverside Park. For a while during the pandemic, someone put a mask on your face and once again, you served as a role model. It was an in-your-face reminder of how to be a good and careful citizen.    

“You always were smart. Boy, could we use you now. You were a heroine in the fight to house and feed the needy and make the world more civilized. But…since you’ve been gone…let’s see, our country has had its ups and downs from rampant homelessness to hair-raising sex scandals, cybercrimes. social media, terrorism, global warming, gun violence, superbugs and pandemics and cryptocurrency which most of us don’t even understand. On the other hand, this is the century of the woman and #MeToo (# is a hashtag that we’ll explain next time we talk). Do you miss being in the here and now? 

“You wouldn’t recognize what you left behind. The whole world has been rewired; everything is digitized. That means we live and communicate on screens as if we’re constantly watching each other on TV, only in real time.” 

“In addition, there is face recognition technology that lets us find criminals easier and use our face to pay for something which we did to get in to see your Val-Kill mansion earlier today. Every time we’re on a computer, which is a device with a screen and keyboard that’s wired to hook us up to communicate with anyone and anywhere in the world, we are being tracked by what are called algorithms. It’s like being stalked electronically. 

“Before we leave, we have questions about your marriage. What was up with it? We just watched Atlantic Crossing on PBS. Give us the scoop? Did your husband really have a thing for Princess Martha of Norway or was that made-for-TV fiction? I guess Franklin and you had an arrangement. Good friends. No sex. 

“We know he had a few flings. How did you feel about that? Of the various women he had affairs with, who was your favorite? Least favorite? Did you ever try to break up one of his liaisons? 

“Can you tell us who was the real love of your life? And to be nosey, spill the beans on your mother-in-law, what a tough cookie she was, though we hear she told Franklin she wouldn’t leave him money if he divorced you? Yet, she was bossy when the three of you were together, right? Any advice for our kids about in-laws and getting along? We’ve loved visiting your home in Hyde Park, N.Y., and library, as well as your graves.” 

Dead silence. 

“I guess we’ll never know. Goodbye for now.” 

Celebrities: Olympia Dukakis

Both of us: “Olympia, although we didn’t know you, we loved your performances and flair for playing ‘Mom’ roles we could relate to so well.” 

“How did you like playing all those old women even before you were really old? Was it insulting to always be cast that way? I guess not because it worked out so well for you. You got the part in Moonstruck and won the Oscar for best supporting actress.”

“How many flops did you have before you struck (Oscar) gold? Were you over the moon? Ha, get it? And to add insult to injury, didn’t someone steal your Oscar? Did you ever get it back? If so, we hope you are buried with it. I guess it can keep you company.”

“How did it feel to win it the very same year that your cousin Michael Dukakis lost the Democratic bid for President in a disastrous election? Were you pissed and your family embarrassed when you all heard that his wife Kitty was furtively sipping cough syrup to get an alcoholic buzz? Do you think that’s why Michael really lost the race?

“Also, we are dying to know the skinny on Cher: Was she fun to work with? Was she nice? Funny? Do you think she had too much work done on her face and body? How about that gorgeous long hair, were you jealous? Tell us you were, even a tiny bit so we know you’re normal.

“Since you always played mom (and I know you had three kids of your own), can we ask you a few questions that only a mother who really is one and played one on screen could know the answers to.

“Why do you think our kids never return our calls, emails and texts? And why don’t they ever take our advice? Do you think they think we’re a pain in the neck?”

Dead silence.

“Oh well, we could talk to you this way for hours, but we’ll let you rest.”

To our readers: We hope you understand how incredibly cathartic this process has been. We suggest that everyone try it if you don’t do so already. And to our cadaver audience, thanks for your undivided attention and good luck in perpetuity to each of you. We know at least you heard our every word since you weren’t multi-tasking and on your cell phones as we chatted. 

May you rest in peace forever, and may your memories be a blessing to the loved ones you left behind. L’chaim.

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