Turning Up at the Funeral

I don’t really learn things very well by being told them

Generally I have to find things out for myself, the hard way, in order for them to effectively sink in.  Nobody ever told me this fact, I learned it myself, so you see what I mean.

For most of my life, I held a particular attitude to funerals.  A funeral is a stressful, emotional, tragic time for the poor people left behind.  The last thing they need is me turning up at their door in my darkest clothes to shake their hand and mumble about how very sorry I am.  What the hell good does that do anyone, to have me doing that?

(Photo courtesy of: Eddie Mallin " monosnaps")

The best thing I can  do is leave them to their grief, secure in the knowledge that I share a little in that grief and feel sad for them and am thinking of them at this terrible time.  They know all that, I don’t need to be troubling them to tell them what they already know.  So I’ll stay away and that will be for the best.  Yes… for the best…

That was how I thought.

It is a strong tradition here in Ireland that people come out to sympathise with the bereaved family.  There are often huge queues of good people waiting to express their condolences at a funeral.  I always really thought I was doing everybody a favour by not adding to this well-meaning melee.

I learned how very wrong I had been a few years ago.  Like all things it wasn’t something I could be told, I just had to find it out for myself.  The hard way.

After Mum died, I found myself standing in the top pew of the church, all dressed up, along with my family, waiting for the people to be let in to file past and shake my hand.  Although, like I said, I tended to stay away from these things, I had obviously been to enough of them to know how they worked.  The good people shake everybody’s hand along the row, they chat a bit to the family members they know and they nod to the people they don’t and then they move back down the church to await the service which will follow.

The people came.  First in a trickle, then in a steady flow.  There were people I hadn’t seen in years, there were people who I had never seen at all.  Some said lots of stuff, some shuffled uncomfortably by and said nothing.  It took a few hours for everyone to visit with us and express their condolences.

I found it was a good thing.

In fact, it changed my view on such things.  It turned me around completely.  Let me see if I can adequately express why this was.  It’s not so easy to do.

The flow of people, old faces and new, created an almost overwhelming wave of positive support.  No one person did or said anything particularly apt or consoling.  Many were perhaps a bit awkward and uneasy, as I would inevitably be in the same circumstances.  But the mere presence of each person, the simple fact of them ‘showing up’ built up, in tiny units, to become something warm and uplifting and reassuring and good.  It seemed to confirm that Mum had many friends, that she had been part of a community, that she was loved and that she would be missed.  Each person who filed in and flitted past our sad little row made a huge difference to the day.  It is difficult to overstate how big a deal it was.

Perhaps you’re not like me, perhaps you actually can be told something rather than having to find it out for yourself.  If you’re dubious about going to a funeral-removal and worry that you don’t know what to say let me reassure you on that point.  You don’t actually have to say anything.  There is nothing you can say to make a difference anyway – the person is gone and for those in the front row it is a very very sad thing.  All you have to do is be there, be a part of the weight of humanity that can count for so much on these, our hardest days.

One other little tip.  During the Mass or whatever, if you happen to know any of the prayers or responses or songs, belt them out a bit.  It’s a lonely place up in the front row and you don’t really know if there’s anyone there behind you unless you can hear them.  And hearing them is another one of those small reassuring things that can count for much.

So, anyway, these days, when someone I know dies, I try to attend and sympathise.  I have seen for myself the inestimable value of that tiny gesture.

I guess we live, and learn… and die.


Jim Murdoch said...

I was desperate to go to my first funeral. It was an old guy my dad knew, Walter. I’d been in his house a few times and so he wasn’t unknown to me but he was probably sixty years older than me. I don’t remember it very well but what I do remember is that, and this is true of every funeral I’ve ever been to, it was Jim-the-writer who was there and not me, even my parents’ funerals. It wasn’t that I wasn’t grieving but for that couple of hours I suspended grief and became the watcher in the (metaphorical) shadows. But that first funeral stands out because I didn’t feel grief. I was a little sad, of course, but Walter wasn’t a significant enough person in my life for me to feel the need to grieve. What struck me was how distraught many of the attendees were and this is something I’ve never really got. Walter was, as the saying goes, a good Christian and would have been looking forward to being rewarded for his years of faithful service – his friends should have been glad for him – and yet here they were wailing and I didn’t get it. I get the idea of the so called jazz funerals in the likes of New Orleans – a celebration of life – but these Christians puzzled me; it wasn’t as if he hadn’t had a good life.

On the whole though I am a bit of an empiricist. It’s a quality thing. I agree totally that one can learn from the experiences of others but nothing beats a close encounter with something. There are things I wished I hadn’t experienced but now that I have I have access to a level of knowledge that I certainly wouldn’t have got through books, talking to someone who’d gone through the same kind of thing, or watching a film of same. I think all these are important supplements because when you’re busy experiencing something it’s neigh impossible to be truly objective but knowledge is a cumulative thing anyway. Your recounting of your experience now gets added to my personal experiences and all the rest that I’ve read and seen giving me (hopefully) a much more rounded picture of funerals.

Ita said...

Your blog resonated with me. Although my Mum died in England all her relatives were Irish and so were many of her friends. From the time that we returned from the hospital with many of her sisters until the funeral a week later the house was never empty.
Like you, many people turned up who I hadn't seen for years or indeed had never seen. It is a shame you do not always realise how much a person was loved til they are gone.
It was obviously a strange sort of surreal week but I do think this outpouring of love made it as good as it was possible to be.

Karen Redman said...

Ken, I'm Jewish ... not very orthodox but nevertheless very "traditional". In Judaism, when someone dies, the bereaved family do something called "sitting shiva". Basically they stay at home for 7 days ("shiva" in Hebrew is the number seven) and, during that time, friends, family, acquaintances (perhaps even the odd enemy) come to the bereaved's house usually bearing food (it is a tradition that the bereaved don't cook for themselves during shiva), they sit with the family and chat about the deceased.

I always thought that this was rather a ghoulish & mawkish procedure ... until, that is, my own parents died and although we didn't have a formal "shiva", for seven days, my friends, friends of my parents and people whom they knew just turned up, stayed for a while and we chatted. I learnt SO much during the week of my Mum's shiva ... little details of her life before she had me, what a rip-roaring sense of humour she had, scrapes she'd got into as a child inter alia. It was a HUGE comfort to me and I was very surprised by that.

My Pa died recently and similar occurred. He'd unfortunately not "gone gently into that dark night" and his shiva helped me to remember him how he was before his final ghastly illness.

I'm quite convinced that this process whether, we're religiious or not (and, indeed, whatever religion we are), is there for a very good reason. It helps to have company when one is grieving. It aids the process and it isn't a depressing or mawkish thing at all. For me, when those 7 days were over, both after my Ma's death and my Pa's ... I felt happier and more positive knowing that there were people around who had known my parents for longer than I and whom had some really terrific memories of them ... none of which was I privy to during their lives. As Ita said ... it was an outpouring of love that made a bad time very much more bearable than it would have been without it. And, as usual, your writing has described your experience so well that it's very easy for the reader to tune into it. Thank you! x

hope said...

Although I'm still somewhat reluctant to go to funerals (and having lost a parent I know how you feel), it was what one of those kindly old people said that changed my attitude.

Funerals are not for the dead...they're for the living. Those left behind need to know that they're not alone.

Laura said...

I have all kinds of weird and wooly ideas about death and funerals. I do think the soul goes somewhere, is recycled eventually. The body is just meat once we die. This is one more reason I'm not a vegetarian. I like my meat.. well never mind.

My Dad died a few years ago, we burned him. He wasn't well liked and once he was gone no one actually rushed to pick him up in his urn. I finally did. He's still around somewhere. My brother scattered some ashes when he took a trip to Scotland a couple of years ago. The rest of Dad is at my brother's house. I'm not sure where.

You may assume I have a casual attitude about death. I don't think I do. I do see it as pretty final. You don't get a reset button - which would be really useful when you think about it.

All of my Grandparents and their siblings are dead. I used to write letters (real snail mail letters) to them all. It was a lot of people to tell the same news to. But I'm adorable that way. Just ask them.. well, I guess you'll just have to trust me.

I could not look at the corpse in the coffin at any of my Grandparents funerals. The idea just grossed me out. They weren't there any more and the left overs were dead, I didn't want to see them that way or touch them. I sat down while everyone else filed past. I read a book at my Grandfather's funeral but that was because I didn't want to cry. I focused and the book was just distracting enough.

I miss my Grandmother most of all. My Grandfather was the best man who ever lived but I miss her more. She was funny, annoying and I think we had a lot in common. But we came from different directions, very different lives. Life makes you different from who you might have been. But, I think of my Grandmother every August 31st (her birthday) and every St. Patrick's Day.

Ken Armstrong said...

Sorry to be slow at responding sometimes. I treasure these comments very highly and think they stand alone without the need for me to add to them instantly.

Thanks again for writing here. It is ***greatly*** appreciated.