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  • Liz Dunnebacke

A Son's Journey to Bury His Mother

Amanda Giffin was a teenager, married to an abusive husband, when her son, Desmond, was born, in 1971. The early years were tough, with both parents struggling to make ends meet, and battling addiction. Desmond was just 4 years old when his mother left the country, with a Norwegian merchant sailor, and took up residence in Oslo, escaping her abusive husband, and abandoning young Desmond. There she settled down and had two children, eventually returning to the U.S. to try to reunite with her firstborn. But, after Amanda left, the father had put Desmond up for adoption, and the boy had already been adopted by another family.

Desmond, already old enough to remember all of his parental figures, was intelligent and a gifted artist. But he struggled with discipline and authority throughout his life and wound up in boys’ homes where he experienced his own share of trauma. As an adult he traveled the country extensively, playing music, and back in New Orleans he worked gigs at music festivals, and painting murals. A talented muralist, Desmond's artwork graces New Orleans buildings, including at the Embassy Suites Hotel, Harrah's Casino, and the iconic clarinet on the side of the Holiday Inn building in the CBD.

In 2004, with her Norwegian children grown, and struggling with schizophrenia, Amanda Giffin returned to New Orleans to be closer to her aging mother and brothers, and to attempt to reunite with her adult son Desmond. “It wasn’t easy at first,” Desmond admits. “I had a lot of anger.” But Ms. Giffin was persistent and eventually Desmond was won over by his biological mother’s charm and affection.

Amanda Giffin was able to get help with her mental health needs in New Orleans and received public assistance for housing and food. In recent years, Desmond stayed with Amanda in her Gert Town apartment, working sporadically as a mural painter, screen printer, and woodworker. The two grew very close and in recent months, as Amanda’s health deteriorated, Desmond became his mother’s full-time caregiver, running errands, cooking meals and cleaning the house.

In January, Amanda suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm and was hospitalized for treatment and rehabilitation. When she returned home she had regained some functionality but she began suffering from fainting spells. When she collapsed to the ground in February, Desmond once again called 911. At the hospital they diagnosed Amanda with advanced metastatic cancer, and acute kidney failure. She barely regained consciousness before slipping into a coma. After 5 days on life support, and at the suggestion of her doctors, Desmond agreed to stop life support for his mother and she died on February 21st. It was a difficult decision, especially as the last few years had brought a profound healing for Amanda Giffin and her formerly estranged son. “She was my best friend,” Desmond says of his mom.

In recent years, Amanda had begun to talk of her preferences in death with Desmond. “She always said she just wanted to be put in a plain pine box in the ground. She didn’t want to be cremated,” Desmond says. After her death, Desmond called around to inquire about burial and was shocked to learn how much is typically charged for full-body burial. Like many in the City, he was relieved to learn about affordable burial options at Holt Cemetery, although the $850 price tag was more than he could afford. But when he told his sometimes boss, and close family friend, that he was going to make her casket, and try to come up with the money before the hospital morgue turned her body over to the City for a pauper’s burial in a potter’s field, his boss offered to pitch in on the expense.

Little did Desmond realize that the $850 burial fee was only a fraction of the fee required by virtually any funeral home in the area for the simple service of transporting his mother’s body from the hospital morgue to the cemetery, and ordering a death certificate. These basic services, which, by law, must be performed by a licensed funeral director, add thousands of dollars to the burial price tag, and Desmond’s hope of honoring his mother’s wishes for a natural burial, were as remote as ever.

With the help of Wake volunteers, Desmond was able to find a funeral home that agreed to drastically reduce their fees to help out this family in need. Desmond worked hard to create a beautiful casket for his mom, in which she was laid to rest on Tuesday, March 23rd in Holt Cemetery.

Desmond at work making his mother's casket.

Desmond helps to carry the casket to his mother's grave in Holt Cemetery.

The casket hand-made by Desmond for his mother's burial.

A painting Desmond placed in the casket with his mother before burying her.

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