I’m getting to the age where I’ve started reading obituaries.
No, I’m not old enough that I’m checking to see whether my name is included in them. And I’m not old enough to be looking for my friends. But I am old enough to be thinking about my own legacy — and I’ve started peering into the lives of others as their own families remember them.
Something more and more common in these obituaries is a notice that there will be no public commemoration of the deceased person’s life: “No funeral service by request.”
As someone whose job involves dealing with end-of-life matters (I consider myself a bit of a death specialist), I find this trend intriguing. It could be a sign of our increasingly secular age. The individual who died may have had no formal religious affiliation and consequently no expectation of any rite or ceremony to mark their final departure.
The trend could also be a sign of our increasingly individualistic culture. In a time when the greatest sin is a dependence on others, requiring people to accompany you through your dying and then asking them to commemorate your life, may sound a bit selfish.
The desire to have no service may also be the result of attending poor memorials. Doing nothing at all may seem better than having an inauthentic gathering where people tell lies about the deceased or where the officiant’s dull commentary puts people to sleep. Reverend Lovejoy of The Simpsons fame provokes many real-life comparisons.
Finally, and more sinister, a decision to have no service may express a subconscious desire to deny death has taken place. When is the last time you’ve witnessed an open casket? Even when we have memorials, we do and say things to mask the reality of death.
There you have it. A number of possible reasons why people are choosing not to have funeral. But let me suggest a few reasons why you might consider a funeral or a memorial in your own end-of-life plans:
• Your life matters: You may feel insignificant compared to people around you. You may not feel important enough to bother your loved ones with this obligation. The obituaries I read in the Globe and Mail are often of leaders in business or industry with various initials following their names (C.M. Ph.D.).
They are described as dynamic individuals who influenced a wide array of people. By contrast, most of our lives have less impact on much smaller circles. Yet I would wager that each of us has impacted dozens of people and that each of us will be missed by someone.
I’ve officiated at numerous memorials where caregivers have showed up to mark the death of a person for whom they have cared. Yes, the caregivers! They showed up, off the clock, to remember someone they helped dress and feed.
Could it be that those final years where you believe yourself to be a burden, your life can still be meaningful to those you employ, let alone your family or friends?
• Your loved ones need a formal goodbye: The best things in life are marked by ritual. In my family, we don’t let anyone’s birthday pass without cards and gifts and candles and cake. So why wouldn’t we take time to mark the fact that a person has died?
These times don’t need to be sombre or depressing or make anyone feel bad. Memorials can be celebrations where happy memories are shared, where honesty is expressed, where a person is remembered for their unique contribution. Sharing memories and expressing gratitude in a public setting help us come to terms with our loss.
Now, I realize people often do this in smaller private settings. I was with a family who shared memories and said prayers at their father’s bedside. He was a pilot. His sons were all in aviation. Together we sang I’ll fly Away. One son later confided that in his mind, this was the memorial — the gathering was a sufficient and meaningful goodbye for him. But the nuclear family was not the sum total of this man’s loved ones. There were lots of other people outside the family who needed the subsequent public memorial to share their gratitude and their grief.
• We all need moments for reflection: Modern life tends to be busy or at least full of distractions. Who thinks of their own mortality when a new blockbuster has just been released on Netflix?
Memorials remind us that our time on Earth is limited and they encourage us to ensure it is meaningful.
At a more recent memorial where I officiated, the grandkids spoke about memories of camping with their grandfather. Their loving memories made me think about my daughters and our family plans for this coming summer.
Memorials help us reflect on life. At the same time, they invite us to ponder the possibilities that lay beyond this mortal existence. In my mind, this latter gift helps us experience an even fuller life in the present.
So, there you have it, a few reasons to end your life on Earth with a funeral or memorial; a few reasons to invite your loved ones to do the same.
No, this isn’t a pitch for more business (for the church or anyone else). It is simply an invitation, at a time of death, to start a new life-giving trend.