And When Someone’s Died?
(Invited in quick succession to a funeral for a relative and then a memorial for a friend, I was swamped by questions.)
When someone’s died there’s generally a funeral, sometimes a memorial. I realised I wasn’t even sure what the difference is. It seems a funeral has to have a body present while a memorial doesn’t. But discussion of either often gets entwined with ‘service’ – a funeral service, a memorial service. That colours the expectations for the event.
I’ll say now that if you have your own reasons that you’re happy with, religious or otherwise, for holding a funeral or memorial then that’s fine by me. But I’m approaching both funerals and memorials without religion or any other firm views. I’m unsure about it all.
In my experience no-one really talks about why a funeral or memorial is being held nor what they’re for, let alone what’s going to be achieved. A lot just gets taken for granted – that it will somehow be a good thing. But, surely, it is down to us, the living, to decide how we act and react to a death in all regards – all. Ultimately, a dead person’s legacy is out of their hands, whatever form it takes and whatever it may be.
People sometimes say a funeral/memorial is an occasion for good memories to be invoked, savoured. But memories are there at any time. And memories are personal. How you think of someone might be very different from how the next person does. What if a funeral or memorial brings out aspects of someone you didn’t know existed – perhaps bad aspects, perhaps good – but either way, aspects that contradict what you believed?
The more I think about it, the more I suspect a core problem with funerals and memorials is that they are products of common and unspoken expectations, but in being so they reflect ways of behaving that aren’t actually what people want to do; that don’t actually chime with how people are thinking or feeling. Consciously or not, we can all fall victim to behaving how others think we ought to but, in fact, we’d be happier if we have the awareness and courage necessary to behave as we genuinely feel.
If you think it is going to be a straight-forward event and the funeral/memorial you’re going to is simply to celebrate a life, even then it’s not firm territory. Too often you hear lives celebrated after a death, but mere talk is cheap. Did the deceased ever hear these things? Hypocrisy is also cheap. And who gains from this celebration anyway, even if it is fair and honest? The dead won’t.
However someone’s remembered, perhaps the value of a funeral/memorial lies in pity and/or self-pity. Perhaps sadness at a death has to involve either or both. Given that the dead person is no longer involved, even the very fundamental emotion of missing someone is essentially pity and/or self-pity. And do we need an occasion – a funeral or memorial – to feel pity for others or self-pity? Shouldn’t we always be both willing and able to feel both?
And then there’s the value of the ‘get together’, whatever form it takes, after a death. Too often we’re all too busy, too hectic, too tied-up with our day-to-day trials and tribulations to spend time with our friends, relatives, loved-ones. Then a ‘can’t say no’ event such as a funeral or memorial comes along that we feel we can’t turn down. So we make time in our diary, just this once. But shouldn’t we always try to make room whenever we can to spend time with friends, relatives, loved-ones? Shouldn’t that be the most pressing imperative, the highest priority? It shouldn’t need an occasion. After all, time’s precious and needs to be spent wisely; any of us might die tomorrow.
So, spend your time wisely … Perhaps the most lasting gains to be had from a death are whatever lessons there are to be learned from the nature of the life that’s now ended. And they might be negative or positive lessons: ‘I certainly won’t do that’; ‘I certainly will try to do that’. Whatever any other lessons might be, spending time wisely has to be among them.
Identifying valuable lessons is one thing. The challenge then becomes acting on whatever you’ve learned or resolved or hope to do. And then you’re left with the really hard part: monitoring and managing yourself and your efforts. And that’s a task that can never be completed.
Maybe that’s what the lasting value of funerals or memorials comes down to: they are reminders that what really matters is how you live your life.