Having the Talk of a Lifetime. Which Voices Count?
Mark T. Higgins
President, Hall-Wynne Funeral Service & Crematory, Durham, NCOver many years as a practicing funeral director, I have been privileged to serve a wide spectrum of the human family – people from many cultures, religious traditions, lifestyles, generations and stations on the socio-economic spread. It is fascinating to consider the factors influencing the engagement of rituals and practices around a death in the family. Everyone has their own story, blending characteristics of the person, his/her relationship to others, the circumstances of loss, and how best to amplify remembrance and meaning in the face of death. Memorial practices have changed significantly in recent years, owing largely to society’s mobility, shifting religious beliefs, a desire for convenience and evolving technology. Funeral service personnel have had to become conversant in the various backgrounds within their communities, more creative and willing to accommodate unique and non-traditional requests. I am continually struck by the equalizer of grief’s vocabulary – that across every culture and religion there is a universal response to loss and intrinsic need of the human species to take leave of those they love, employing some form of ritual. Encoded into our being, as recorded throughout the history of civilization, is the intentional care and disposition of the dead and the signing of such an event with symbol and custom. Many reading this may think, “Well, this is no longer relevant anymore. Funerals are really about “life”, therefore the dead no longer occupy any necessary role at memorial occasions.” Within many North American circles there has indeed been a movement away from ceremonies at which the dead are present. Some of this is tied to cremation, eclipsing burial in many places, but just to set the record straight, unlike the time-honored practice of cremation in other countries, Americans have mostly opted for it as a substitute for a funeral rather than an alternative to earth burial. On other continents, where cremation follows the majority of deaths, mourners gather at the public venue of the crematory to bid farewell and commit the departed onward in like manner of standing at the open grave to commend one to the earth. “Just dispose of me promptly, avoid any fuss and have a party.” I hear the remark leveled partially in jest when in conversation about my vocation. Often it comes through when clients, bent on honoring their loved one’s wishes to the letter, end up making such choices, inwardly conflicted though feeling duty-bound. Humans and animals alike grieve when faced with significant loss, and we do well to keep in mind how funerals benefit society by providing a venue for remembrance, support and love, taking leave and being revitalized with hope amid sadness. Having the “Talk of a Lifetime” is a gift one can leave their survivors within the right context and with appropriate intention. To wit, it is one thing to express desires within the framework of, “here’s what’s important to me” yet quite another to either script every detail and nuance of your own memorial, or dictate dispensing with all of it, without regarding the feelings of who we leave behind. Our own preferences must be balanced by the claim made on each of us by our family, friends, co-workers or faith community – those left to put forth the labor of getting on with their lives. Those who have a stake and deserve some say when the time comes. It is wise and thoughtful – a normal part of estate planning – to do two things in advance. First, sort out the logistics of such details as cemetery property, location of vital documents and insuring adequate funds for when the need arises. Secondly, share with loved ones the highlights of your life’s journey; your favorite causes, places, music, books, etc.; and deeply-held beliefs, as perhaps reflected in biblical text or other sources. At the end of one’s life, memorial ceremonies to have any enduring worth, must be more substantive than, “I did it my way” a la Frank Sinatra. Finally, I would advocate that funerals at their best culminate to anchor survivors in meaning and hope for something beyond this life. They come up short if only a celebratory vignette at which you and I are the “star of the hour” with our particular little history as the centerpiece. Many memorial occasions today sadly avoid the fact of death and any evidence thereof. The proverbial elephant in the room. Confronting death honestly and authentically rather than ignoring it and trying to do an end run around grief is not helpful. Celebrating a life and recalling memories are uplifting and sustaining, but healing begins when we acknowledge genuine loss and make a physical separation with solemnity and reverence. When we stand before the body or even the coffin of someone who mattered, it is that pivotal moment of getting our heads around the vexing emotions of grief, saying our goodbyes, expressing gratitude and honoring someone who counted. Some may declare this a downer or passé vestige, but to the contrary, it’s human instinct. Rituals at life’s end enable a time to pause and pay tribute, celebrate, laugh or cry, and ultimately point to life not death having the last word. By all means, have the “Talk of a Lifetime.” Doing so can spare those you and I love the unfortunate outcomes of, “make no fuss, save the money and just swap stories” to instead finishing our days strong, underscoring what we have believed and valued, how we mattered, and accommodating the privileged, sacred task of the earth-bound to tender us to the ground, fire or sea with their eyes beyond the horizon. We have been at this forever and know in our bones how fundamental it is.