I was shocked when two friends told me that, after they die, they didn’t want a funeral or an obituary. I’ve since come to realize that this is part of a nationwide trend (see “Honoring the Wishes of Those Who Didn’t Want a Funeral,” in Next Avenue), although I’m still not clear why.
Growing up, funerals were a part of my family’s life. They weren’t just a ritual of mourning but a way of maintaining and even strengthening the fabric of our family and community. I still vividly remember my grandparents’ funerals. They were preceded by two nights of wakes, where friends and family members showed up at the church to view the body and to offer comfort to the family.
On the day of the funeral, we would drive past my grandparents’ home, as a final farewell to the place they spent most of their lives, before proceeding to the church, where hundreds of people—family members, coworkers, neighbors, friends, fellow church members—would be lined up in the pews. The priest, who knew my grandparents and family well, would give a long eulogy, after which we would proceed to the cemetery and the family plot, marked by a large granite stone.
After the somber speeches and tears, we would gather at the local tavern for drinks and food—a chance to be together, to trade stories, even to laugh. There was sadness but there was also joy at being together. It seemed an important ritual, as important as the other rituals of our large family—the baptisms and weddings—that marked the stages of life.
Even in war-torn Ukraine, amidst all the chaos, the elaborate funerals continue, especially in small towns where everyone knew the deceased. The tradition is to march through the town with the body, visiting the places where s/he lived, went to school and worked before the last stops at the church and cemetery, to be buried next to a long line of kin.
These rituals don’t work as well in our modern, fractured world, where most of us live far from where we grew up and away from family, if we even have family left. Many of us don’t have a church or a minister who knew us or our family. We often have to devise our own ceremony and put together our own community.
Maybe that’s why obituaries seem so important to me. They are what’s left of community. Having lived in Boulder for more than 50 years, I knew, if not personally then by reputation, many people whose names appear in the obits in the local newspaper. They are part of my past—and part of the community that made Boulder what it is today. When I read about their passing, I feel a slight sadness. I acknowledge their life and that our lives briefly touched. It’s even an acknowledgment that I’m not far behind, that we’re all together on this path—a reminder of death coming for us all.
Some obituaries are inspirational, such as the ones who lived with terminal diseases but never gave up on their love of life. A few months ago, an obit for a local scientist referred to his love of teaching and how many young scientists he mentored and inspired. It was the kind of obituary that makes you want to keep trying your hardest, no matter what.
I respect those who don’t want a funeral or obit. But in a time where so many people are estranged from one another, we need community more than ever. Funerals are one way of bringing people together—even, dare I say it, Republicans and Democrats.