I’ve been to some pretty fabulous parties lately – including my own 60th. Of course all my old school friends are hitting this significant milestone too, and consequently it’s been a real high season of celebrations.
However, another kind of celebratory occasion has also been popping up rather frequently in my diary – the celebration of a life well-lived and no longer with us.
Most of us approach funerals with trepidation – but not me. I’ve decided they can be rather cathartic and actually quite jolly in a respectful way.
The past few months have been busy on the funeral planner, with the deaths of my own darling mum in August, shortly followed by an elderly aunt, a godfather, a cousin and three parents of close friends. Just a few days ago I went to the funeral of someone I hardly knew but whose sister is a good friend.
Funerals certainly aren’t what they once were. I believe the big change came with Princess Diana’s passing – when we all discovered the comfort of collective and public grief. The world just about stopped in combined bereavement, both on the day of her death and that of her funeral.
The public outpouring of grief changed for many of us the way we approach the final farewell, and funerals can now be anything you want, or anything the deceased person wished for.
I think going to a funeral is good for you. Even if you’re not a churchgoer, the familiar rituals, ceremony and words remind you of how transcendent it is to get together, mourn communally, and sing sad, sorrowful songs and hymns (usually out of tune). It’s a strangely convivial and potent way of reminding yourself how darn fantastic and exhilaratingly joyful it is to be alive.
Death is the most denied human condition. We are all terminal, yet somehow we think it will cleverly bypass us and our own demise doesn’t bear thinking about. A good funeral even makes you realise, with some sense of luck, it wasn’t quite your turn yet.
In 1950s New Zealand when my grandfather died, the womenfolk were not expected to attend the funeral. The men in the family got on with the business of burial and the women stayed home, dithering about in the garden to watch the funeral procession go past.
My grandfather’s funeral was a large social occasion in Christchurch, with lots of cars with lights dimmed, driving slowly out of respect for the family… well, that was how it was supposed to be.
However, there was a drama with the muffler being knocked off the hearse as it crossed the railway lines, and it kept stalling unless driven really fast and very noisily to keep the revs up.
My mother said it was hilarious, like having a front-row seat at a grand prix, as undertakers and all the followers sped by trying to keep up with the coffin. We think the old boy laughed all the way to the cemetery.
In 2015 the right way to have a funeral isn’t quite so set in stone – if you’ll excuse the pun. In fact, now anything goes, and the right ways far outnumber the wrong. I’ve recently attended a full requiem mass with fabulous hymns and incense as well as a casual, almost picnic-like affair, sprinkling the ashes at the beach.
We’ve had sparklers and the release of colourful balloons, as well as a mournful lone bagpiper. Burials can now involve everything from the eco-conscious biodegradable shroud in an unmarked grave, to the forward-thinking iPhone-shaped coffin. And did you hear about the funerals in the US where they dress up and ‘pose’ the corpse so the deceased can be part of their own funeral?
Regardless, always the message is the same: a farewell, forgiveness and loving one another.
A funeral is important for saying goodbye. It certainly helps the people left behind come to terms with their loss, and that is possibly the main reason we attend them, to support our family and friends in their time of need.
It’s a good idea to write down a few important things for your loved ones in relation to your own personal wishes for that final party – no matter how far off you expect it to be.
I’ve already given my family explicit catering instructions. And I must have a chat to the hubby Ross about whether he wants to be sent off in his firefighter’s uniform – and if he shares my thoughts on the importance of mini potato-topped pies at a funeral.
Although I’d better approach it delicately – I wouldn’t want him eyeing up my filleting knife nervously or thinking he had better check the brake fluid…
Photographs by: Getty Images