When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Be honest

The staff at a crematorium see and hear hundreds of funerals. "How's the new music system working?" I asked an attendant the other week. Instead of supplying CDs to play at funerals, we have to tell them what the family wants and they get it downloaded and play it through their system, which means that my friend must sit through more funerals than he used to. He responded gloomily, “Oh, they’re all wonderful!” He didn’t mean that the funerals were wonderful. He meant that the deceased were all supposed to be wonderful, according to their eulogies, which cannot possibly be true. Everyone lived an exemplary life, they were all loved, no one had anything negative to say about any of them, and – he went on – they keep singing the same hymns, over and over again! No wonder he’s bored!

I’d gone to conduct a funeral for a very old woman who wasn’t wonderful. Her daughter read a tribute that was painfully honest about the hurt she’d caused by being emotionally cold and detached. She had never, ever told her children she loved them, or shown any physical affection – no hugs or kisses, praise or encouragement. I wondered why she’d been like that. Maybe she’d been deprived of affection during her own childhood. Maybe she had a personality disorder. It’s good that her daughter hadn’t followed the same pattern. Some people never escape their early conditioning, others transcend it. In old age, the mother had had dementia. She forgot everyone and everything. She was oblivious to the hurt she’d caused. Perhaps she always had been.

I didn’t see the attendant after the funeral, so I didn’t get his reaction. We hadn’t sung any boring hymns. The deceased was described honestly, though it was clear that her family still loved her, and grieved for her. They also grieved for what they’d never had - love and affection.

Funerals don’t have to be all the same. People are different, but mostly flawed to some extent – some more than others. If we’re described solely in glowing terms after we’re dead, however imperfect we might have been, we won’t be remembered as we really were. Voltaire wrote, “We owe respect to the living: to the dead we owe only truth.”

1 comment:

RavenGrrl said...

Your thoughts about death, funerals, grieving and honesty have struck a chord in me, so I thought I would share this:

Several days ago, I attended the funeral of a well-loved pastor in our town, a man whose politics were radical (not just progressive) who reached out with compassion,to all the fringe people in our small-town society ... people like gays and lesbians, the poor, drug addicts, the mentally ill. He was a pastor who didn't mince words in the pulpit -- he was sometimes painfully (and always annoyingly) honest when he spoke at Sunday services in his church.

Thus it was, dry-eyed and with not a little curiosity, that I sat in one of the back rows listening to the glowing testimonies and stories people told about him, every one of them raising this 80 year old human being higher and higher on a pedestal.

It had been several years since I had spoken with this pastor ... there were some things that happened between him and me, that I had a hard time forgiving. I was determined to sit through the memorial service respectfully and unemotionally. When his middle child (an adult of 49 years)stood at the front of the standing-room-only sanctuary and addressed the congregation, he spoke clearly-- and lovingly -- of his imperfect dad, of the man who modeled his life and actions after Christ, yet who made mistakes, who wounded some people just as he lifted others up from depression, poverty and prejudice. He spoke of a man, a father, who wasn't perfect...

It was then I felt tears spring up in my eyes.

You are right - the dead deserve honesty. So do the living.