Because showing up matters
“I love funerals!” said no one ever
I doubt even morticians say that. At least, not out loud. For the rest of us, there is no “fun” in funerals. That holds true even when they’re called something else, like “memorial” or “celebration of life.” However they’re presented, they always mean the same thing: somebody died.
And that, in almost every case, is a bummer.
Also, it makes us very, very uncomfortable, because death.
Mortality. The big finish that’s coming for all of us, someday, somehow. The wall we can’t see over; the horizon we can’t see past. Hamlet’s undiscovered country.
Knowing that someone we know, however distantly, has died reminds us that our turn is coming, and that gives us the heebie-jeebies.
There are cultures that are more comfortable with death
At least, they seem more accepting of it. India has an entire city, Varanasi, that Hindus traditionally regard as the place to be when it’s time to die. Some devotees seek to spend their final days meditating there on the shores of the Ganges — a far more emphatic embrace of the inevitable than an advance care directive or a DNR (Do Not Resucitate) order, which is about as far as a lot of Westerners get.
Here, death isn’t something to be hidden. Rather, it’s a part of the fabric of everyday life. About 80 cremations take place every day along the banks of the Ganges. At sunrise, boatmen offer rides across the dark water, from where you can watch distant fires slowly light up.
Mexico famously originated Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead holiday that is now celebrated all over Latin America as well as, increasingly, the U.S., especially in the southern border states.
With its sugar skulls, colorful ofrendas — homemade altars decorated with photos, marigolds, mementos, and food to welcome back the spirits of the dead who are said to revisit their earthly homes in the first days of November — it’s an occasion with a sentimental yet lighthearted vibe that celebrates both life and death.
Many of us Northerners aren’t quite there yet
We don’t even like to come right out and say somebody is dead. Instead we say in subdued tones that they’ve “passed away” or, often, simply “passed.” As though they’ve declined their turn at Scrabble.
We’ll say someone has “crossed over”, or “made their transition,” or has been “called home.” Maybe they’ve gone to their great reward, or to Heaven, or to be with Jesus.
That doesn’t even touch on the vast field of more colloquial euphemisms: the dearly departed bit the dust, is pushing up daisies, took the dirt nap, bought the farm, or cashed out.
If we’re that averse to even saying the D word, no wonder we’re squeamish about the rituals surrounding death. Depending on our relationship to the deceased, attending the funeral is guaranteed to make us feel things we don’t like to feel, ranging from awkwardness to deep sadness and even dread.
There are some situations in which it’s obvious that our presence is expected, as when a spouse or close family member has died. Then we pretty much have to show up no matter how painful or weird we’re sure it’s going to be.
But what about more, um, optional situations? That is, when it’s someone we weren’t necessarily close to but whose loss affects other people we know and care about? Maybe a friend we’ve lost touch with, or a colleague, or a coworker’s loved one?
We don’t really have to go, do we? It’s not like we’ve received a personal invitation. And the funeral or memorial or life celebration is bound to be at an inconvenient time, probably in the middle of the work week. Maybe we should just skip it.
How do we even know anybody wants us there?
Sorry to wreck your rationalizations, but the answer to this is simple. If there is a service announced in any sort of public forum — in the newspaper, or a church bulletin, or in an online or social media site — then consider yourself invited.
If the service is meant to be private or for close family only, it’ll say so. Otherwise, anybody who knows the deceased or who knows someone who is personally impacted by the death, is welcome to show up.
Barring, of course, any obvious reason why you wouldn’t be welcome. If you and the deceased last encountered each other on opposing sides of a bar fight — well, use your best judgment. Certainly better judgment than you did that time.
Otherwise, assuming you live within reasonable driving distance, the best thing to do is to buck up, make the time, and make the scene.
It’s completely human and normal to feel helpless when someone you know, or sort of know, dies. That’s because you in fact are helpless. You can’t do anything to change the fact that a person is dead and there are other people who are therefore in a great deal of pain because of that.
You don’t know what to say. You’re not really sure you even know how to act.
Trust me, you don’t have to know. Nobody else does either. As Ram Dass said, in life “we are all just walking each other home.”
When it comes to confronting death, we’re all just stumbling along as best we can. But if we have company along the way, it helps. It can mean the difference between stumbling and falling.
Rituals exist for a reason, and death rituals are meant to ease the distress of the living (maybe the dead too, but we can’t be sure). Bereft survivors need and deserve whatever support they can get as they try to put one foot in front of the other. When you show up for the funeral, that support is what you’re offering, even if all you do is sit silently in the pew.
Honestly, that’s really all you do have to do. You don’t have to send an elaborate floral arrangement (after my father-in-law died in an accident and logistics meant that my house was the gathering spot, I couldn’t look at gladiolus sprays for years afterward). You don’t have to come up with the right thing to say.
You don’t have to say anything at all. If it’s appropriate, a hug will suffice. If not, don’t worry about it. Sign the guest book. What matters is that you’re there.
You didn’t turn away. You were willing to be in the presence of the pain and solemnity and loss. You faced the awful, awesome intimacy of grief. That means something.
If you need more encouragement, here’s a less lofty reason to show up. It’s virtually guaranteed that somebody there will be both surprised and grateful to see you.
I have been to funerals that truly were celebrations of lives well lived. I’ve been to others that were heartwrenching. Some have been weird. At least one had moments that were downright cringeworthy.
But I have never regretted going.