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Divorce + the Family Plot

Death after a divorce can be messy for the living

Special to the Star Mon., Nov. 12, 2018

Dustin Wright’s parents had been amicably divorced more than 25 years when his father died, so he was a little taken aback when his mother got upset that the extra burial space was to be given to his father’s long-time companion.

Wright, a communications director at Arbor Memorials funeral home, knows that the reactions of those in grief to the death of a loved one can be unexpected, so his mother’s reaction shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Often the funeral is an impromptu family reunion — sometimes those involved haven’t seen each other for years — and they have to work together to make decisions.

“To my mother (buying the plot) was something they did together and represented their commitment to a life together. And then she finds out after his death that thing together has been given to someone else. I think she was caught off guard that there had been no consultation or agreement.”

The death of an ex often “triggers a deep emotional response that was long forgotten about. It’s not logical, of course, but something about the memory is specific to their relationship,” says Wright.

With Canada’s divorce rate lingering at around 40 per cent, those in the business of end-of-life planning, such as cemetery, memorial park and funeral home directors and executors of wills, are facing these situations more frequently. And the reconfiguring of families through remarriage can make for challenging discussions at a vulnerable time for family depending on how the children were treated at time of separation, how the divorce was handled and how the exes have treated each other.

Wright works with families at a very highly emotional time. Often the funeral is an impromptu family reunion — sometimes those involved haven’t seen each other for years — and they have to work together to make decisions. That’s where differing opinions came in and divorce can add another level of different complexities.

No funeral home or place of burial wants to be in the middle of a family dispute. But when prior arrangements are not made, the decisions are left to the children. If they cannot agree, the usual recourse is to consult the will and to have the executor make the decision based on what they know of the deceased’s wishes. If there is no will, or no stipulation on burial, then it’s up to the current spouse to make the decision. And there is lots of room for misunderstandings and disagreements.

“As much as we like to work with families, especially in a difficult time, our guiding principle is to follow whoever has the legal authority to make funeral decisions and are able to demonstrate that on behalf of the deceased.” says Wright.

That is why he is a big proponent of pre-planning which includes communication with all parties — including the ex — and working through any possible problems. So when the time comes, the deceased’s wishes and instructions are well known.

Kevin Palin, director of Toronto’s St. James Cemetery and Crematorium, says, in the past year, several divorced couples have purchased plots close to one another or in the same general area so the kids can visit both parents at the same time. Another cemetery manager has overseen an arrangement where a mom and dad are buried in opposite corners of the same plot, with step-parents and other siblings in between.

At both St. James Cathedral and at St. John’s Norway in Toronto’s east end, cremated remains can be laid to rest in plots on top of the ancestor’s caskets as long as approval is given from all living descendants.

Funeral and burial directors say that the dynamics are often less fraught when death — and not divorce — has resulted in remarriage. Especially with the second spouse.

Jane Giffen’s male partner was widowed three years ago and his three adult children are still grieving their mother, who died accidentally from a fall.

“He’ll likely be buried with her, and that’s OK with me,” Giffen says. “They had a good marriage for 36 years, and he misses her terribly. But I wouldn’t want to be buried in the same plot with them — I wouldn’t want to spend eternity as second banana.”

It’s often the children who want divorced parents buried together, either for the convenience of visiting one grave site or because of some lingering distress over the divorce. A 2003 Wall Street Journal article detailed the story of a 50-something man who told his stepmother she could legally bury his father in her family plot, but after she died, he would disinter the father and bury him next to his mother. The stepmother backed down and let him have his way.

Giffen has witnessed unresolved grief with her partner’s children. One of them purchased the family home and has set up a shrine. “This is a little creepy,” Giffen says. “It’s in the dining room, along with a picture of my partner and his wife in an embrace. It’s a shrine to the marriage, not to their mom, and while I might understand it at some level, it’s still hard for me to see.”

While this is a growing dilemma that more and more families are facing, it is not new. The rich and famous have provided examples of dealing with death when there are multiple spouses over the years. Jackie Kennedy Onassis, for example, is buried beside her first husband, assassinated President John F. Kennedy, not her second husband, Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

Novelist Jack Kerouac is buried with his third wife, even though his daughter from his second marriage tried to have him disinterred and buried elsewhere. Lauren Bacall is buried next to her true love Humphrey Bogart, even though she remarried after his death in 1957.

Marilyn Monroe is buried in a crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery. She and ex-husband Joe DiMaggio were close to reconciling when she died. He took her death really hard and had roses delivered to her grave every week for 20 years. Nonetheless, DiMaggio isn’t buried next to her, Hugh Hefner is. The founder of Playboy magazine, who died in 2017 at age 91, bought the plot in 1992 wanting to be buried beside his magazine’s first Playboy Bunny.

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