Last night, I had dinner with some great friends. Among other things, we talked about how death and funeral practices have evolved over the years since our childhood. Having been raised Roman Catholics with varying degrees of adherence, we recounted the various practices we were exposed to.
When someone passed on, there would be a wake that may last for several days. At night, family members and/or close friends would take turns staying with the departed relative at the funeral home or chapel overnight. Yes, I remember my parents having to take their turn spending the night, not to sleep, but to stay awake, and keep the dead relative company. There were also visitations by friends and relatives, the viewing of the open coffin, the various rituals such as the recitation of the rosary (long version usually) or a mass held in honor of this person.
I remember how it was not uncommon to hear someone declare, “My, he (or she) looks good, huh,” after viewing the open coffin. This is supposed to offer comfort or compliment the family members. A friend said to me that she was so upset over her father’s untimely death when she was still a teenager, that she found this comment completely inappropriate and it offered not an ounce of comfort. That’s kudos to the embalmer and probably the make-up artist who prepares the dead—to look “less dead?”
Another friend confessed that when her brother died a few years ago, she was quite surprised when she heard that some family friends had commented on her not being present at all times during the daily vigils. She did not know she had to be there all the time. She was going through her own grief over her brother’s death and she did not care to do it publicly. She was not aware there was this protocol that had to be observed.
I remember when my aunt passed on back in the 80’s, my cousin was criticized quite viciously by many supposedly wise elders at how little she cried. I was so stunned by their lack of understanding. Even compassion. This cousin was too stunned by her mother’s death that the entire funeral must have been surreal to her. Again, is it protocol to cry profusely? Vociferously with chest beating and hands flailing?
Hearing all this, I wonder what it is that has made people do what they do during these times. Is it the fear of the unknown beyond life? That they are afraid to leave the dead alone, even overnight. Will the body disappear?
As far as the dead are concerned, they’re dead. What difference does it really make whether they lie in their caskets alone or with an entire crowd around them? They can’t possibly be comforted by the presence of the living around them.
Or is it the living who want the other fellow living to see that the dead are not left alone so that when it is their turn to pass on, they will not be left alone? Can’t they see that by this time, it really will not matter much?
I recall a story told to me by my sister-in-law. Her husband’s brother died not too long ago. It was only when this brother died that people realized how famous he was in his music circle. The funeral was well attended (over 500 attendees!) and after the service, they went on to PARTY! This is because they all knew this is how he would have wanted to go: that people were celebrating his life, dancing the night away to the music he so loved.
I’ll take it a step further: Why can’t we celebrate people’s lives while they are still living. I am reminded of a section in the novel by Mitch Albom, that was popular in the 90’s: Tuesdays with Morrie. In the book, Mitch organized a celebration when Morrie was dying but could still interact. He gathered relatives, friends and colleagues. Instead of a eulogy, they paid tribute to him. What a wonderful way to end one’s life! This is so much more meaningful than a grand funeral with long-winded speeches and ceremony.
When it’s my time, I told my daughter that I don’t want people to wear black. They can wear whatever color they want. I also want my life celebrated, not mourned. There should be a celebration, not a somber one. And I’d like it as short as possible. No vigils where I will keep people up all night for days and days. No rituals or prayers said by rote memory. And no one has to shed too many a tear.