Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.
Death seems to be in the air these days.
There is, first and foremost, the horrible news out of Tokyo, which just keeps on coming.
There was also the virtual death of Politics Daily in the wake of the AOL/Huffpo merger. While this is, of course, nothing on the order of the loss of human lives being experienced in Japan (and the Middle East), the full-to-the-brim inbox and intra-office Facebook discussions that had been so much a part of my life for the past two years is gone. And in their wake: silence.
Finally – and most immediately – my elderly neighbor passed away last week. Though I only came to know her over the course of the past year, I cherished her friendship. She was warm, funny, razor sharp and kept herself engaged – and engaging – to the very end. I hope to be just like her when I’m 90.
In order to pay my respects, I went to her funeral last week.
I’m not sure if I’m going out on a limb here, but I actually enjoy going to funerals. Sure, they are sad occasions brought on by sad events. But they are also a joyous celebration of life which is at once poignant, edifying and above all, calming.
Here’s why I think funerals are an uplifting ritual of adulthood:
1. You get to know the person better. Most funerals invite a series of people to talk about the deceased and offer insights into different aspects that person’s life: a spouse/partner, as parent, as colleague, as friend. And I find that I always learn something new about the person which enables me to know them better. At my father’s funeral two years ago, one of the people he mentored got up and talked about what he’d learned from my Dad about the practice of law. I knew that my father had touched many people’s lives over the course of his career, but I hadn’t fully realized to what extent. Similarly, at the funeral of my landlord, I discovered that in addition to her long career as a teacher and educator in London, she’d also been a prima ballerina, performing and teaching around the world and winning a prestigious life-time achievement award last autumn from the Royal Academy of Dance. I left the funeral feeling that I knew her that tiny bit better: more to savor; more to remember.
2. You get outside your own routine. Funerals can be a time sink. At a minimum, they usually last 1-2 hours (depending on whether or not you’re going to the burial), and that’s not including travel time. It can be tempting in such circumstances to focus on all the canceled meetings, missed phonecalls and rescheduled childcare. But I think that the lost time is a good thing because the hassle is part of the experience. Much like taking a sick day or going on a staycation, going to a funeral forces you to get outside of your own routine. And that’s really worthwhile. In requiring you *not* to operate on auto-pilot, a funeral jolts you into awareness about what it is that you *are* doing.
3. You engage in mindfulness. Which brings us to mindfulness. OK. True confessions. I’m still not sure that I fully grasp exactly what this is. But I think it has to do with learning how to be in the moment and to focus inward rather than chasing the myriad distractions that attend everyday life. I find that when I’m in a funeral – and regardless of whether or not it’s a religious service – I’m not only solemn but hyper-aware of my surroundings: how the processional march sounds…the smell of the furniture/pews…the shuffle of my dress as I stand or sit. And I love that. As someone who often has trouble mono-tasking, I welcome this sort of uber-attentiveness to the here and now.
4. You learn about traditions around death. Every religion has its own rituals for dealing with death. I grew up Catholic, so I was quite used to the open casket wake where people come to a funeral parlor to view the body and pay their respects in the days preceding the funeral. Jews typically sit shivah, which is a seven-day grieving process that takes place at a family members’ home. At the funeral last week, each of us sprinkled a bit of earth on the coffin once it had been lowered into the ground. But an Israeli friend I was with told me that in the jewish tradition, people take turns shoveling earth onto the coffin until it is entirely buried. I love learning about other community’s rituals and funerals offer an entree into that.
5. They bring closure. Not of the emotional sort – that can take years, if not a lifetime, to sort out. But the funeral does mark an end to that bizarre odyssey of planning and preparation that accompanies a death, in which you are simultaneously blown over by the toll of your loss but equally distracted by all of the work that necessarily goes into a funeral ritual of any sort. And for many of us, that’s when we truly begin to grieve.
Image: Funeral Service by MudflapDC via Flickr under a Creative Commons license