With thanks to Canadian Veggie
Posted by our irreligious correspondent Jonathan Taylor
Who is a funeral for? For the living, in the belief that the dead person won’t be there? For the dead, to help them into the afterlife? Or is it for both, so the living and the dead can do something for each other? At the very least, the living can prolong the dead’s pre-posthumous dignity by disposing of her unwanted body since she can’t do it for herself, but it’s less clear what she’s doing for them once she’s dead.
Even some atheists talk about what they want for their funeral. Perhaps we go along with such wishes so the still-living may end their days with a secure feeling about their own eventual event, which they’re going to miss but can at least anticipate meanwhile with some confidence.
You seldom hear it said: “It’s what she wants”, even from those who think she’s still around. Almost everyone feels a seemingly instinctive need to do ‘what she would have wanted’. It’s what funeral plans are sold on. But it is one thing to honour a person’s wishes; it’s quite another to honour a person. One involves ties of loyalty, perhaps even obligation; the other we do entirely of our own volition. When we honour her at her funeral in our own way, they are our needs, not hers, that we are seeing to, and she cannot dictate those needs to us. The question is; what is in whose gift, and to whom?
She can leave some dosh lying around on the off-chance we’ll want a funeral for her; fine, she’s probably right, and it will come in handy thank you. She can let us know her preferences, so we can choose whether to go along with them or not. But if she leaves us a ‘gift’ of a prearranged as well as prepaid funeral plan for her, is she not depriving us of our right to honour the ‘her’ who carries on within us, leaving us as passive mourners intimidated by the sanctity of her ‘arrangements’ (a favourite word of funeral plan sellers)? Grieving is active, not something that happens to us. We need something to do that says this is our party for her, at least as much as hers for us. Doesn’t she disempower us? Doesn’t she actually make it harder to grieve her?
Still, that’s not what she intended when she purchased her own funeral! She thought she was doing what it says in the brochures: ‘…saving us the anguish and grief of doing anything other than remembering her’ (Golden Leaves). She innocently bought the line that says we can sit back and enjoy her choice of hymns and coffin and budget without having to ‘worry’. She also bought into the idea that our having (choosing) to put together a funeral ceremony for her would actually impede our grieving rather than facilitate it.
It plays on and perpetuates the notion that arranging a funeral can only be a burden, best given to others to carry for us while we act like helpless children impatient for it to be all over and done with. It disables us from improving the healing quality of her funeral by our own involvement, and prevents funerals in general from evolving. The fact that it’s sold partly on its being cheaper at today’s prices only cheapens it further.
She is, as I say, entitled to invite us to carry out her ‘wishes’ on her behalf if we like. It’s a different thing to pay someone to arrange things so that we must, because then it would seem an act of defiance on our part, an insult to her love and concern for us, to override her plan. Doesn’t she, then, take for herself what is rightfully ours? Shouldn’t we reclaim it from her, even if that leaves her investment wasted and us out of pocket and feeling guilty?
The wish to be at her funeral is ours; our gift to her, not hers to us. We can hold it, rather than just attend it, to help us understand how we will bring ourselves to face her death. She cannot tell us what she symbolizes for us now; that is our task, to discover once she’s dead. We do it to establish what her life and her death imply to our past and our future; to thank her for her part in our lives, not to be indebted to her for it.
So do funeral plan providers play on the bad reputation of funerals by selling a palliative for what could otherwise be a healing event? Do they perpetuate the image of the funeral as a tired old painful procedure instead of a brand new constructive ritual? And do we play into their hands with our concern for our offspring when we buy them, and undermine our own goodwill by leaving our family with the lasting problem of not having had “…to worry about arranging the funeral and finding the money, at a time when they are coming to terms with their loss” (Cruse Bereavement Care funeral planning leaflet)?