I go to a lot of funerals. It’s an occupational hazard. Sometimes I’m there in support of friends and family and sometimes my involvement is a little more complicated than that. This past weekend I went to the wake for the grandmother of some good friends of mine. After being there and visiting with my friends I had a long drive home with lots of time to think and I kept thinking about how I’d like to be waked. It’s not something I think about a lot but at this particular wake there were so many things I liked, and that’s unusual for me, that it’s made me feel hopeful about my own going away party.
Being professionally involved in wakes and funerals I’ve seen a lot of painful, creepy and miserable things take place. I was leading one burial service for a young girl who had been killed in a car accident with her older sister behind the wheel. As the casket was just about to be lowered into the ground the girl’s mother jumped on top of the casket and wailed. I was at a wake for a man who’s funeral I was leading and when I walked in the room the feeling wasn’t one of sadness or loss or grief it was one of white hot anger. The family wasn’t angry at God, they were angry at each other and could hardly stand to be in the same room together. I’m sure the deceased was glad he was missing the event.
The wake I went to on Friday was entirely different. They were a Catholic, Acadian family. That meant there were about a dozen children of the deceased in line to shake hands with. Not in-laws, just the biological offspring of this small, gentle woman who had fought the good fight and left ready to go. There were no long faces, no angry glances back across the room at each other, no uncontrollable weeping or stories being told to each person passing down the line by a bitter child about how they’d finally decided to forgive their ______ at the moment of their death. Every family has struggles, issues not of Jerry Springer proportions but stuff, at least ever normal family does, but aside from that, this was a family who had been loved well and was celebrating a life well lived. There was laughter mixed with tears, funny stories, appreciation and hope.
On the drive home I decided I definitely want my family and friends to ‘go Acadian’ for the event of my wake and funeral. Lots of food from friends and neighbours, stories told and laughter shared and as people come by to shake their hands, if people come by to shake their hands, have fun and smile.
Going through the line that night I came to child 8 or 9, one of the daughters who took my hand and after 3 plus hours of non-stop hand shaking and greeting she said to me, with all sincerity, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That was supposed to be my line! She was oblivious to what she said and her sister next to her started laughing and said, “What did you just say???” I smiled and told her who I was and how I was connected to the family through my friends, grandkids of the deceased. And then I told her I was sorry for her loss. No one ever knows what to say at these things. Ever. And in all the funerals and wakes I’ve been to I’ve never found a family member who cared. What they want is a warm hand to shake, to see people acknowledge their loss and the memory of their loved one. No words, no explanations, no, “heaven must’ve needed another angel…” theology for dummies. A warm hand, a gentle hug, a friendly nod and your presence, your being with them in this moment is all that’s ever needed.
I’ve thought about my own wake and funeral before. I’m claustrophobic, I’ve written that story here before, and the idea of my body being inside a tiny little box with no room to even roll over if my descendants do something really daft make me nauseous to think about it. My preference would be to be buried on a stand on a mountain top like movie native americans used to do it. I’d rather be bird food than worm food. If that can’t happen I’ll take the box but at least put a copy of the latest issue of People magazine and the New Yorker and one of those crank lights in the box with me just in case.
I want a Catholic funeral mass, easily one of my all time favourite experiences. Not being Roman Catholic creates some issues but I’m sure my family can figure out some way to make it happen. For the wake, as I’ve said, go Acadian and afterwards invite everyone back to someone’s home for food, loads of it, with fiddle players and step dancers. I want lots of colours and me the only person dressed in black because it’s slimming and I look darn good in it. Flowers, yes, but original paintings on the walls particularly from friends of mine like Jim or Karine. And music that isn’t about organs, unless it’s rock, and doesn’t involve the lute. Some music by my friends or favourite independents please, live if possible. Have a room where you can get a nice “adult beverage” of your choice for those so inclined and have mandatory story hour to correct all the stories I’ve gotten wrong and tell some funny, embarrassing and untrue stories about me. Mostly I want people to have fun and make one more memory with me. If it’s my wake, I prefer to have my body in whatever house this party takes place in so my ears, though deaf and my eyes though closed and my mouth, though silent might be ready on the off chance God gives me one last shot at a joke, story or good-bye. Regardless, to those who gather just remember, I WILL be listening.
I’m asking God for 80 years so I don’t expect this to come to pass very soon but I’ve been thinking about it and before the year of blogging expires I thought it would be good to get it written out. Life is such an incredible gift that I think on my exit I want to celebrate it, not mourn what isn’t. On my side I think I need to do more with my life to celebrate it now so there’s nothing left undone that was in me to do. If you’ve got any suggestions for a great going away party please let me know so I can make it an epic funeral, maybe even getting a Viking sendoff like my friend Dave was talking about.