I don’t do funerals!
(published in NCT:sf Sept 19, 2011)
A few days ago I overheard a brief conversation between two friends. One had recently “lost” a partner of forty years after a half year struggle with cancer. The other was a friend and co-worker who expressed his condolences (a month after the memorial celebration) saying “Sorry I didn’t come but I don’t do funerals”.
I can understand that some people have not yet quite got around to dealing with death as it is the ultimate and most definitive event in every life. We all die. Not that I believe that the time and date is fixed somewhere in a celestial calendar, but without a doubt we all have “our time”.
Recently I attended the memorial service of a well known neighbour and friend who died just a few days after his 97th birthday. A hall had been rented and a few hundred friends and admirers attended, giving testimony to a life well lived and giving thanks for the contributions made by this individual. His urn was placed on a table displaying some of his certificates, medals and memorabilia. Even a candle was lit giving a flicker of some nod to eternity or legacy or “karmic presence” as it was described.
The poet John Donne wrote:
But since that I
Must die at last, ‘tis best
To use myself in jest
Thus by feigned deaths to die.
Throughout our lives we experience these “feigned deaths”, although we may not think of them as such. When I was still pre-school my best friend whose name was Butch moved away from the neighbourhood. I remember how distressed I felt with this experience of “leaving” – outside of my control. Over the years I have experienced many “leavings” – some tragic, many sad, some of which were anticipated but many that came suddenly. With the recent death of my father as he neared his 90thbirthday, after a full and productive life, I realized that coming to terms with these final partings is not ever going to be easy. But each death experience adds a different dimension to the reality of the now with the potential to make life more meaningful. Somewhere I once read: “when faced with death sing the song
of life”. I think that is what the sacred Jewish prayer called the “Kaddish” is all about.
Michael Dowd talks about death:
Widespread ignorance of the scientifically indisputable fact that death is natural and generative at all levels of reality, coupled with our culture’s failure to interpret the science in ways that will help us to actually feel that death is no less sacred than life, result in not only distorted but outright disabling views. (1)
Dowd goes on to talk about “the positive role of death in the Universe”.
When we lived in our first house in Toronto’s east end, we had a neighbour Joan who was definitely not elderly, but a woman with medical problems and a very gruff personality. With our kids she was a kind hearted grandmotherly type who would invite them in for milk and cookies. One day the ambulance came and took her out, obviously with no need to rush off. We waited for a newspaper obituary to learn the details of a funeral, as we knew she was Catholic and had attended St. John’s Church only a few blocks away. The neighbours asked if we knew any details of the funeral, so when we saw Joan’s husband working in the garden we asked him about any wake or funeral. He told us that he had instructed that “the body” be taken straight for cremation and that there would be no ceremony of any sort, not even for the family. Having tried to prepare our children for the funeral, we then had to explain that there would not be a funeral. I suspect that there was more to this scenario than a simple “I don’t do funerals”.
We were at a funeral home in North Toronto for the traditional wake of a woman our children called “Granny”. The funeral home provided two adjoining rooms for the large crowd that gathered the evening before the funeral. The room was filled with the din of people talking and laughing. Stories were being shared. Suddenly a loud whisper swept through the room – “Priest”, “Priest”, and the room emptied in about 30 seconds. There were only two families left when the priest approached the casket. When asked if he would say a few words he declined because he had forgotten to bring his book.
Since moving to Vancouver Island there have been few funerals to attend even though we are now at an age when more of our friends, neighbours and family are experiencing death. If there is some sort of gathering after a death, it is a memorial or “celebration of life” sometime in the extended period of grieving with some practical considerations including people needing to travel to the Island. These memorials have been varied in structure – some very formal and others so informal that it was difficult to remember that the purpose of the gathering was to acknowledge the death of someone. Even among Catholics there is a trend to avoid funerals in the church where the liturgy comes in a rusty can allowing little participation or feeling. My father, a life long Catholic active in Church ministries over many years, had instructed years before his death that the one stipulation he mandated was that he “not be taken into a Catholic church”. We had a beautiful memorial some two weeks after his death in the chapel of the retreat centre in Nanaimo – packed to overflowing and filled with gratitude and happy memories but no “mass”.
So why do people have difficulty acknowledging this fundamental experience – death. We took our children to all funerals so that they would simply experience this moment as a natural moment of life. It was a learning experience for them. We noticed that other children, closely related to the deceased did not participate in the funeral rituals. No wonder that now some “don’t do funerals”. People don’t die; they just disappear – permanently. The new age expression is that they have “passed over”. We live in time, and the time with a person is sacred and to be noted. The mortal frame left behind is not just some “road kill” that needs to be cleaned up and trashed. When the “corpse” is simply sent off to be disposed of, the absence of one is not acknowledged, a life lived is not remembered, we as humanity have lost something precious that probably developed over hundreds of thousands of years in evolutionary history that brought us into the reality we call “humanity”.
We are a death denying culture – there is a huge industry that helps us postpone death, and ultimately to deny death. But death – not the feigned parting but the ultimate real separation is something that we experience until we become the experience. As the old rituals prove to be unsatisfactory in helping us deal with this reality, the challenge for our own collective mental health is to come up with something that helps us prepare for the reality of death. Reflecting on Psalm 103 – “As for us, our days are like grass; We flower …the wind blows …We are gone” Joan Chittister suggests that for the psalmist “life is temporary, fragile, daily ‘redeemed from the grave’”(2)
This ancient wisdom urging us to understand our fragile mortality is the key to being able to sing the song of life.
2. Songs of the Heart: Reflections on the Psalms by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications)