Friday, July 2, 2010

No service will be held

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.


gary.parks said...

Brilliant! Life and death as contiguous parts of one whole is an insight not often shared by those of us gifted(?) with self-awareness - we are plagued with the R brain's imperative for self preservation. Life is tenacious, but the arrow of time is irreversible for us mere mortals.

MaryBeth said...

Thank you Diane!! This was so moving and inspiring. It caused a river of words to flow out of me. Thank you for being a catalyst and providing me with a place to share my story.

My friend Kaja died last year. She was 96 and she called me 2 weeks before she died, saying, "If you want to say goodbye you better come now, I feel like I'm dying" - so I dropped everything and drove there (from CT to Long Island). I felt good that I did. She said that she would be writing friends and family "goodbye letters" in lieu of a funeral. This is because she didn't want to inconvenience anyone... because many of her friends and family lived far away. (Unfortunately, for some reason, I never got a letter). The lack of a funeral magnified my loss. I felt worse because I didn't get to celebrate her rich life and celebrate my/our love for Kaja with friends/family. She stayed at a nursing home for the last 5 years of her life.... and made great friends with the visitors! They always looked forward to seeing her and brought her gifts/etc.

A persons death is a great opportunity to celebrate their life and our love for that person. Kaja was very spiritual. She believes in the everlasting nature of the spirit. In fact, we felt so immediately connected, we often talked about the idea that we probably knew one another in another lifetime.

I hope and pray that people will give deaths as much of a celebration as births. Having a party for someone who is physically departed may seem odd, but if you believe the person's soul is still alive, they can feel your energy and they are present. It also brings a profound feeling of the sacred into the celebration.

When my aunt died two years ago, we had the standard funeral but then we all went to dinner and had the chance to share with the family all we loved about Rita. It was healing for them and us. As far as closure, I will never fully be able to grasp the fact that my Aunt was here alive and well and now she is physically gone. It's such a mystery. Her funeral gave me not closure but a confirmation that she is here and that she lives on... somewhere else and in our hearts. It reminded me that this life is precious and temporary, so we need to treasure it, savor it and make the most of it.

I'm sure my aunt was present, right there with us. Of course, being Irish, after the funeral we all went back to the house reminisced about my Aunt, joked, laughed, drank, and I even led the group in some old Irish Drinking Songs. God Bless the Irish. :-) It was the ultimate celebration of her life and her ultimate metamorphosis.

Your article is so filled with wisdom! I would love to see it article get published in as many publications as possible. Maybe in the obit section.

Thank you again!!!!!!!