Pictures of You

Update: I thought this quote from a review of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be fitting:

Think about eulogies for a moment. They’re impossible things, meant to recapture something while simultaneously acknowledging the irrevocable loss of that same thing. Eulogies try to bring somebody back so we can remember them properly, even while communicating the fact that they aren’t ever coming back.

My parents and I were both at funerals last weekend, though nearly 400km apart. In both cases we were there as friends of family of the deceased. As these things do, I was reminded of past funerals I have attended, what I might like or not like to occur at my own, and how I might handle those of my parents. Morbid? Perhaps, but apropos given the circumstances. Memento mori and all that.

I was also intimately reminded that while funerals are really for the living (or surviving), without a reasonably solid knowledge of the deceased and balanced focus on their surviving loved ones, they don’t bring much comfort.

For whatever reason, to me a sign of a good funeral service is learning something about the deceased. Information from a time before you knew them. A funny anecdote from an event you hadn’t attended, etc. Funerals are supposed to celebrate life, and I love learning about the different ways in which people have lived. That said, it then makes me a little sad to know I won’t really have opportunities to learn more of those stories. Certainly not first hand.

At the funeral I attended they played a slideshow of photos throughout her life, which got me thinking about symbolic items. A selection of little things that could be displayed like photos often are to represent the person or some of their favourite things or pastimes. I think coming up with those things could be fun, or at least nostalgic and a little comforting, but would be much harder to do in a grief-addled state. So something to consider well in advance.

Although, sometimes improvising works out okay, too. Every church kitchen has spoons. :)

So, right. The deceased and their “presence” at the service. One thing that makes me really uncomfortable is when the officiant clearly didn’t know the deceased. This isn’t uncommon when the person wasn’t religious, for example (i.e. didn’t have a “home” church and pastor). It’s just awkwardly obvious that the person is cobbling together a service from a few shared tidbits of information.

Usually the officiant has the good sense to make note to the assembled of how well or how little they knew the deceased, but it’s also pretty obvious really quickly. Sometimes that’s ok and they are clearly doing their best. Sometimes it’s really not okay and can cause lasting damage. I realize that in cases like that it would in some ways be better not to have a stranger officiating, but realistically, how many people could make it through an entire service for a loved one? Any profession that shoulders burdens most of us can’t handle (and wouldn’t want) is a noble one.

The pastor at the funeral I attended commented that he didn’t get to know the deceased as well as many. Fair enough. But he was her home church pastor, and I got the impression that he didn’t know her that well in comparison to the family or many friends present, many of whom had known her 30-40 years in some cases. I’d give him a pass. The service went smoothly and was personal enough, and was in good part directed at her family, as was appropriate.

At the service my parents attended, however, the officiant was clearly attached to the funeral home where the service took place, since the deceased’s family was not religious. The officiant didn’t know the deceased at all, and cobbled together the service from a few, obviously hastily provided, details. Awkward. But it gets worse.

Because he didn’t know the deceased, he didn’t know her family or friends, either. He almost exclusively referred to her husband and children and their loss, almost entirely ignoring her mother (her father died some years ago), siblings, etc. That was very poorly received, and rightly so. Her family was part of her life, and they’d lost a daughter, sister, aunt, etc., and they had been part of her long struggle with cancer as her husband and children had been.

The last thing a funeral service should do is cause MORE pain. You don’t get a do-over.

The only thing that stuck out for me about the funeral I attended was that there was no singing. I know not all denominations make music and songs a central part of worship, but coming from a Mennonite background, a service without singing seemed downright incomplete. Perhaps had it been a non-religious service like the one my parents attended it might have seemed less odd, but I was in a church.

The pastor mentioned a couple of the favourite artists of the deceased and her husband. Had I known any Vera Lynn songs, I definitely would have sung one in her honour in the car when I left.

A friend who’d been at the same funeral I attended told me a story as well of another funeral he attended, where, despite having been estranged from the family for over a decade, they were the ones who handled (and paid for) the funeral and other arrangements. But as a result, the funeral was essentially for the person the deceased had been before their estrangement. So basically, for someone who hadn’t existed in some time, and wasn’t who most of the friends and non-family assembled knew. There were a lot of hard feelings. However, from a purely practical standpoint, the family had arranged and paid for the proceedings, so how the service took place was their right.

In life, we more or less inhabit different personas in different times, places, and company. You’re not quite the same with your parents as with your friends. Or the same with co-workers as you are with siblings. So it’s not really reasonable to expect all of your personas to be represented at your funeral. One can try, having various people speak and such, but ultimately life is very messy, and some sanitizing tends to be necessary.

This is why I am a fan of handling funerals like marriage is handled in some places like the Netherlands. The “real” wedding is a civil service, but you can have a religious ceremony, too, if you like. (But if you have only a religious ceremony, you’re not legally married.)

If it is appropriate for you and the life you led, and your family and/or friends, to have a religious service upon your demise, that’s cool. You may even want to contribute suggestions for content. But afterward, I think it’s equally important to loosen the ties and take off the pantyhose, hoist a pint and tell stories that will have people crying with laughter, and play music that sounds best loud. And probably serve ice cream. :)

  • M@

    I became a humanist officiant over three years ago, and I have not yet had to do a funeral except for one in the family. (I’ve done dozens of weddings in the meantime.)

    The scenario you describe is exactly what scares me. I know that when I am requested to do a funeral, I will be trying to do just as you describe, and try to make it less obvious that I did not know the deceased.

    But really, the role of the person performing the funeral is to help lend shape to the grief of those who are left behind, to create a safe and loving space where that grief can be felt and expressed. In a lot of ways this is best done by someone who is not too close to the deceased, since it requires keeping the ceremonial aspect of a funeral going.

    But most important, I agree, is to avoid, to whatever extent possible, being in the way of the grief. It’s why performing a funeral is much, much scarier than performing a wedding. The stakes are much higher, and it’s much harder to know how to get it right.