I went to my Uncle Frank’s inurnment today at Fort Logan. A Korean War veteran of the Navy, he served for many years as commander of the Wilmore-Richter American Legion Post 161 in Arvada. The Legion is an amazing community and the turnout was huge. I commented to my cousin that all of them are also his family, they were his community for so many years.
So what is a funeral anyway? It is a rite of passage of course, that others make possible for the deceased. In Jewish tradition , it is an honor to shovel the earth over a casket because the person for whom one does the shoveling cannot so to speak “return the favor.” This is a reminder that there are many things in life we do for others that they perhaps could not do for themselves. Sometimes we are motivated by compassion or empathy, thinking “I would want someone to do the same for me if I were in that situation.” Other times we just do things for no reason except that it is the right thing to do, and we most likely feel good about doing it.
This takes to me the essence of community in the funeral context – going beyond the transactional aspect of life, or a social bargain based on a tit-for-tat, scorekeeping or checklist sort of assessment of a person’s life. How often do we hear about a bucket list . . . whose bucket list is it anyway? When a person dies and survivors grieve and mourners mourn, we feel the loss of that person as an individual and as a member of our community. This love that causes the grieving is proof of the existence of life and relationship, I think this is the real proof that someone lived and was loved. Whether you have a belief or disbelief in an afterlife, grieving is proof of love, proof that someone touched your life in a way that can be felt and reckoned only by the heart. The love never dies, it most definitely has an afterlife.
A funeral, memorial or celebration of life causes us to slow down and reflect on that person’s life and our own lives as well and to look for meanings in our lives as we construct meaning for the life of the deceased. This aspect of funerals is the same across the globe. Okay Barb, but The Meaning of Life? Surely I’m referring to the Monty Python film . . . I am after all a ” huge fan of their work.” I was thinking about the three family members whose cremains are at Ft. Logan and also about all those baby boomers reaching a “certain age.” What will the meaning of the passing of the huge numbers of baby boomers mean for our children and grandchildren. Will it be any different from that of the Greatest Generation or the Silent Generation. Undoubtedly it will. Is up to the deceased to make meaning of their own life? I think not, that is the task of the living. It does give the living, the surviving community and family members an invaluable opportunity for reflection. This reflection can operate on many levels: It reminds us of our own mortality and the fragility of life; it can focus our attention on the time we have now and not leaving unsaid those things we might regret leaving unsaid (there are Dr. Byock’s four things I have previously blogged about, among other conversations); we have an opportunity to adjust our self-identity and to “be” in ways that are new and sometimes challenging indeed.
A funeral is a rite of passage for everyone, all the survivors – if we simply stop to take some time to reflect and ask some questions. For most people, these are not easy questions to discuss, but in my work as an estate planning attorney, one of the questions I ask concerns funeral arrangements.