My initial life affirming reaction however was soon replaced by a nagging feeling of cynicism. Okay over 2oo people turned out to give this gentleman a worthy send-off but – what was the point? Presumably, prior to his death, this chap lived out his life in loneliness so wasn’t it all just a little bit too little too late?
There seems to be a big emphasis placed on funerals which I just don’t get. The idea that planning your own funeral could be empowering or meaningful just passes me by. Frankly, I don’t want a funeral. I would much rather my loved ones spend the ridiculous sums of money involved on themselves. When I told my mother of my wishes she was appalled and I know full well, should I pop my clogs, she will ride roughshod over my wishes. And maybe that’s it – the funeral is more about the living than the dead.
If that’s the case, I can’t say I have derived any comfort from the funerals of people I have loved and lost. I felt completely detached from my father’s and couldn’t have cared less what kind of funeral it was. This was partly because his illness and death were hijacked by my mother. She supported my father and the unspoken agreement between my brother, sister and I was that
we would support her in whatever decisions she made. We had no input and the funeral had very little to do with my feelings for my dad.
Strangely, what comforted me more was visiting my father in the chapel of rest. My mum was adamant that to go and see him was an aberration– we should remember him in life not in death. It was the one and only time we defied her and, as the three of us sat with him and said goodbye, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. By the time of the funeral, I’d said my goodbyes and so the anonymous, official send-off meant nothing to me.
In contrast to this, my second brush with funerals this week came when I attended my cousin’s. It was always going to be a sad affair as she was only fifty five but the funeral was, in every sense, a celebration of her life. Her son and husband read eulogies and it seemed very much as if the occasion was a comfort to them. This was their way of letting go of a woman they loved with
all of their hearts and it made me question my own views on the meaningless of funerals.
The problem is, I seem to have attended too many like that of a talented young man who I used to teach. A bizarre affair where the dress code, issued with the funeral arrangements, insisted upon bright colours and categorically no black. Close family members wore t-shirts emblazoned with the young man’s picture and there were balloons everywhere. I almost expected party poppers and streamers. This funeral was a determined, dogged attempt to celebrate a life that bore little relationship to who the young man had been. In reality he had suffered from long term depression and had taken his own life and I feel certain would have been mortified had he been around to see it.
My own thoughts on funerals and their significance seem to be that put simply; it’s how you treat people in life that matters. Maybe, if instead of turning out for a stranger’s funeral, Facebook galvanised people to visit lonely pensioners in old folks’ homes it would have more meaning. Am I trivialising an ancient tradition that has provided comfort to human beings since time began? Maybe I am. Maybe it’s a symptom of a society that has become more secular where traditions such as funerals have become devalued. Death is a fundamental part of life and as such perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising that opinion is divided. My mother was comforted in the dark days of her grief by the poem Death is Nothing at All by Henry Scott Holland even choosing to have the priest read it during my dad’s funeral. I remember rage mounting with each word – how could death mean nothing at all when it felt as if someone had just ripped my heart out?
I read recently how Elvis Presley, at his mother’s funeral, threw himself onto the coffin and had to be prised off before it could be lowered into the ground. Do such public displays of grief mean that he loved his mother more than other less demonstrative people might love theirs? It seems to me that funerals are about showing the world how much we care and I can’t help thinking that the world would be a far better place if we put that into practise in our day to day lives.