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.
This sounds like the way things were done when I was growing up. And may continue to be done among regular churchgoers. But as an atheist/agnostic/humanist (take your pick), I don’t want some religious person who never even knew me conducting some service over my remains. Nor do I want my family spending money for such a service, or for a casket and burial site, etc. Cremation is so much cheaper and I won’t have to lie in the ground and rot forever.
I can write down my wishes in advance, but once I’m dead, family can do whatever they please. A simple little secular memorial service would be more than enough. But what comes after I’m dead will obviously be up to those still living. I’m a real hermit and no one but relatives know me and they are spread all over the country. So there’s no “community” to bring together. Besides, I’ve moved too often to be part of any community.
As for an obit, I don’t care one way or another. I’ll probably write one in advance to make sure all the details and chronology are correct (as best I can remember!), but publishing it won’t be up to me. Obits used to be free, appearing essentially as community news. But I’m pretty sure these days you have to pay to get one published — and there’s one more expense for my survivors.
I might feel differently if I’d lived in one community as long as you have, and had developed strong roots in that community. (I hope I got that code right.)
Susan, thanks for your comments. I agree with you completely about not wanting money spent on casket, burial site, etc. I agree that cremation is the way to go–especially as the preferred ecological method. And I agree that it will be up to friends and family to decide whether to hold any kind of service–or just get together for a beer.
As a spiritual person, I like to think that there’s some kind of ceremony that would mark the end of this life (and the transition to the next one), but I’m not sure what that would be.
Yes, newspapers charge for obits. I say this sadly, as someone who used to edit obits. It seems it should be a community service.
I’m not sure the code is right for the link, unless you wanted to show a picture of someone in a box (?).
I understood the need of death ceremonies when I was about 50/60 years old. You get older, you need to say good bye, you need closure. Death ceremonies are for the living, not for the dead. You need to feel that you are alive!
Fear of death is normal, but useless. You will die, try to live the best you can.
My then 16 years old son, told me he wanted an Irish wake, everybody merry and drinking. I thought he was very wise for his age.
Cremation is the best most hygienic solution. Our body is just the vessel of our soul, no value after the soul lives this life.
How about this:-)?
I agree. Funerals are for the survivors. We should celebrate the person who left us and who made our lives brighter.