I’ve been able to attend two really beautiful funerals this year, both for people who were extraordinary, and who had wonderful families. I was struck both times by what a special experience it was to share in the remembrance and celebration of the lives of these people with their loved ones. At both, there were many, many experiences shared, sweet and tender memories and funny ones, recounted with laughter and tears.
But how often do you hear people say they enjoyed attending a funeral? That they looked forward to the funeral, that they cherished the time they took to be there?
Americans (and probably many in modern, Western cultures) are far behind some more “primitive” cultures: we do not appreciate the death process or anything surrounding it; we tread with great trepidation around death; and we don’t honor those who are aging, stepping ever closer to death each day. It’s a serious problem. We have become obsessed with youth, with appearance that speaks of youth, with the notion that all that attends death is blessedly far away from the young. I’ve written at length about the problems our image-consciousness (tied in part to the beauty of youth and unwrinkled, unblemished skin) is causing us as individuals and as a society. I’ve not written much about how it’s separating us from those in our culture who have the most to give and share with the rest of us: their wisdom, their fascinating experiences, their character.
Some cultures truly revere their elders. They hold them in high esteem, treat them with great respect, seek them out, not only include them in decisions but hold them as their highest decision-makers. Their middle-aged citizens and children look up to them and learn from them, seeking to be more like them.
In our culture, ageism is the rule. We hire young workers at the exclusion of older ones. We worry about the capacity for wisdom and clear thought of those who aren’t young any longer. We put them away. We don’t want them as leaders because we are sure they’re “out of touch” with “reality.”
And then there’s death. We fear it. We fear the process leading up to it; we fear what happens when and after we die. There is little of reverence and appreciation for the process, even when someone is able to leave this existence with a minimum of pain or discomfort. We are somewhat conditioned naturally to keep away from dead bodies, and we have very little cause to interact with them. I have had the opportunity, however, a few times in my church to help dress women for burial, and I have found it to be not “gross” or “weird” or “scary” but, instead, a privilege. I have found it to be a sacred experience and a lovely last opportunity to perform a service for women who have meant something to me in my church congregation. But, again, we hear little of this kind of experience and of reverence for those who have died.
I was able to read a lovely book this year written by a hospice nurse about the experiences she’s had helping people and their families as they have passed from this life. In One Foot in Heaven, Heidi Telpner tells readers about “good deaths” and “bad deaths” and reminds us all that we all will one day experience death ourselves, and most of us will have to deal with family members’ or friends’ deaths in some way or another. As much as we may (mostly successfully) manage to evade staring down death during our lives, it is still there. It still happens to us all. And the more we are comfortable with it, the more we and our loved ones can experience “good deaths.” Telpner tells about the poignant experiences she has had getting to know good, interesting people with loving and supportive families and how their deaths have been sweet and calm. She also tells about the people who personally fought death or had family who fought the reality of impending death and made it difficult for them to die peacefully. It’s a fine primer for all of us, to remember that death is inevitable, but how we approach it can make all the difference in how we and our loved ones live — and how we prepare to die.
So I find myself still getting surprised looks from others at times when I mention how grateful I was to attend some really beautiful and inspiring funerals, that I have been blessed to be able to provide a service to a person whose body is being readied to be buried but whose spirit is still living elsewhere (as I believe). I’d love to see this change, to see our culture become more age-friendly and even elder-centric. But I’m not holding my breath: we have a long way to go.