I read the obits in the paper almost every day. No, it's not my age - I've been looking them over for many years. I think it's my fascination with story: who was this person; where did they come from; what did they do; whom did they love; how long did they get to walk in this terrible, beautiful world? You don't get much of that information in the standard newspaper obituary these days, but still there's a texture of someone's life even in just their name, age and hometown. I'm drawn to those terse, factual paragraphs, again and again, trying to follow the raveled threads down to the rich fabric of a single human existence.
And it breaks my heart a little when I see, in the last paragraph, the sentence "no service will be held." I always wonder why the family and friends of the person who died chose to commemorate the end of their loved one's life on Earth by NOT commemorating it.
Maybe the deceased wanted it that way. Maybe the family is having a private gathering they don't want advertised. Maybe the grief is too great to contemplate sharing, or maybe the relationship was problematic and the grief isn't great enough, or is too mixed with other feelings. Maybe the friends and family aren't religious and they think funerals are only for those who believe in an afterlife. Maybe money is tight and the family doesn't see how they can afford a memorial gathering. Maybe a funeral reminds them of their own mortality, and that's too much for them to face. Maybe everyone's just too busy to plan anything. There are a million good reasons why people don't gather in community to remember, acknowledge and/or celebrate the life of someone they know who has died.
But there's one GREAT reason to go ahead and do it anyway. It's not about "closure;" I intensely dislike that word and the way it's used in our culture to imply the ability - or necessity - to set aside difficult issues so we don't have to think about them again. When someone who has been significant in your life dies, there is no "closure" - that's a linear notion, out of place in a universe of concentric circles. Your relationship doesn't disappear just because the person is not physically present; you carry something of her/him with you in your brain/heart/cells/soul/genome/who-knows-what. There is, however, the tying together of two ends of a circle. There's a final sentence to a chapter before the new chapter begins. And there we are, back at the idea of story again - not closure, but continuity.
When we ceremonially celebrate the end of someone's life, we're also celebrating the fact that our lives go on. We're celebrating the contribution the person who died has made to OUR stories - individually and as a community. We're allowing tears and grief to mingle haphazardly with laughter and joy - a critical balance to maintain in a healthy, fully functional human life. We're acknowledging that, even though some among us may believe in an eternal life, no earthly state is static or permanent - and that it's OK to experience pain and confusion around that fact. We're taking an oath of citizenship in the universe, as part of a story so immense we can't begin to get our minds around it. And none of this is dependent upon any particular religion or belief system. It's just a condition of being "enfleshed" - plopped into an amazing and transient skin-enclosed form that is self-aware.
Death can make life seem bigger, more mysterious and vastly more precious, but only if we consciously and courageously use our talent for making meaning from seemingly random events. At a funeral or celebration of life - really, in any rite of passage - we create symbols and rituals that speak to something in us deeper than our thoughts and quieter than our restless intellect. We weave a story in which all of us are characters on a quest - first, to endure the unendurable, finally to unmask the good and the beautiful. And we walk home arm in arm from the grave, or the park, or the wake, with an opportunity to be better people, more integral people, than we were hours before.
Hold a service - of one, two or two hundred. Go on to the next chapter.