The Final Farewell

When someone dies, we need a rite (or series of rites) of closure. Without it, we will have trouble believing that the person is really dead. Our grief, which is often repressed while we are in a stage of shock, may never surface, leaving us with a heavy load to carry around.

I was in my first year of university when I attended my first funeral. I was bathed in a sense of unreality. It seemed to be a very strange ritual indeed, more concerned with denying the reality of death than with facing it. The focus of is all seemed to be not on the deceased or the feelings of the survivors, but on the lunch that followed the ceremony. The last thing I wanted to do was eat.

Since then, I have played the organ at a great number of funerals. I have often found myself weeping for the grief of families that I did not know well. The emotion in the air can be so strong that it is overwhelming. When there is a great deal of love in the room, the ritual is draining, but strangely uplifting.

The funeral services of Native American families seem more meaningful to me than average. There is a generally a great deal of human interaction. The children are comfortable being children, very concerned with looking after the flower they have been given to throw into the grave. The family sits at the front of the church, near the casket. Everyone who comes up to pay his or her final respects shakes hands with each family member. There are frequent outbursts of hugging and kissing and weeping and wailing. No one seems to consider stoicism a virtue. The service always has surprises. Someone may decide at the last minute to say something or sing a hymn, and everyone respects that.

When my father committed suicide in 1989, there were a lot logistical problems around the funeral arrangements. Not the least of these was the fact that my father had stipulated no funeral, and no memorial. After a couple of days of confusion, I asked my mother if she was up to having a funeral service. We decided to dispense with the funeral, and have a memorial service the following summer. That gave us lots of time to consider our options. My mother decided that she needed to have a grave somewhere, so she bought a plot for the interment of the ashes. We considered the possibility of a New Age style service, and decided that my father would find that even more objectionable than a Christian service. We ended up having a generic Christian service in a neutral venue, a lawn bowling club house. We interred the ashes as a family. I must admit that I missed the presence of clergy at that moment, but I also felt empowered by the fact that we could do this without outside supervision.

I wrote and conducted the service, with participation of other family members. At the end, we asked people to speak if they wished, and they did. From the heart. During lunch, a number of people approached me with their traumatic funeral stories, and asked how they could arrange something similar to what we had done. Many of them had never considered the possibility of having a service without trained professionals.

When I was sitting beside my dying husband last November, I decided that I did not want to put myself through the usual post-mortem frenzy.  Since he had specified immediate creamation, there was no need to rush.  We celebrated his identity as an Anglican priest in an intimate family Eucharist a few days after his death.  A formal memorial service in his final parish followed after Easter, when emotions had settled.  The delay made it easier for far-off friends and family members to make the trip.  The event, a great outpouring of love and support, had an atmosphere of celebration which would not have been possible right after the death. 

At the time of a death, families are very vulnerable, and likely to be swept into ordeals that are not beneficial to them. The final rite is an important way of coming to terms with life, death, and the pain and joy that flow from both. It can take any form that is helpful and meaningful to those who are left behind.  Some struggle is required to figure out what is really important, and what is best omitted.  Rites of closure are unlikely to be a healing experience unless we have thought and talked about them ahead of time, and faced the inevitability of death for all of us.