Why a good funeral can be a life-affirming occasion
Eva Wiseman — 10 Jul 2022
As well as tears there’s cake and laughter: remembering a well-lived life is a very human affair
Last week, I went to the most fabulous party, and it happened to be a funeral. My best friend’s mum, Janet, died – a clever, funny, brilliant woman who was remembered for the way she danced around kitchens, and smelled of perfume and fags, and trucked across the world with priceless artworks, and brought up two of the most extraordinary girls in London. But while the loss was incredibly sad, her funeral was an absolute blast.
My friends and I dissected it on the way home in the car. Why did it make us feel so… good? The journey was long, the roads were blocked, so we had plenty of time to discuss it, to think about the way their family had performed this quiet trick, taken a sad song and made it better. They’d started by employing progressive funeral directors who gave them a copy of the book they’d written, We All Know How This Ends, a guide to death and the lessons it teaches us about life. They said talking about death and dying can be life-enhancing; they never used the words “passed away”, always “died”. And they insisted the funeral could be anything the family wanted it to be.
There was nothing wild about the afternoon, nothing fired from a cannon or dropped from the sky, instead just this sense of gentle shared joy, passed from hand to hand. Beside the coffin, Janet’s daughter did, not a speech, really, it didn’t feel like a speech, it felt like a series of happy memories told beautifully and everyone laughed.
A colleague talked about Janet’s work, her husband talked about the places they’d lived and the family they’d built, their shared love of drunkenness. There was a poem which read like a love letter, and there was mingling outside in the sun. At a café down the road a jazz trio played while we ate some sandwiches and drank some wine, and the place was packed with Janet’s many friends, some old, some young, some she’d known from work, some from the pub, everyone chatting and chuckling, and holding each other’s arms with that perfect griefy care.
While the loss of my best friend’s mum was incredibly sad, her funeral was an absolute blast
I’m sorry to go on about the pandemic again when I know everybody’s doing so well at trying to forget all about it, but God, every now and then the facts of it prick freshly at me: the way so many had to mourn alone, or die on FaceTime, or attend funerals from home and the distance of a shaky camera, or sit very far apart in ventilated rooms while coffins slid away. It is unbearable, really, to remember.
I had thought before about how sad and how hard it was to organise a funeral without hugs, without people to support you or hold your hand, but it wasn’t until this week that it hit me how difficult it must have been to mourn somebody properly without also having an opportunity like this, to celebrate their life. The gatherings of warm bodies and unplanned conversations, and strangers meeting across a memory that they didn’t know they shared. And food, and drink, and good things like that, passed over babies’ heads on paper plates, and all these witnesses, to see what a life, and to see how loved.
It’s something that still feels quite profound to me, these coming-togethers of people after so many months of distance, whether at the funeral, where there were lots of us, but only one thing talked about, or miles away at Glastonbury, where there were thousands of people all singing one song. I have moments of feeling pleasingly moved by crowds today, people needing people, and acknowledging our mutual humanness in glances or touch. Even if, of course, that understanding is fleeting and forgotten as soon as you leave, when somebody cuts ahead of you in a traffic jam or gobs wetly in the street. That’s human, too.
One of the things this funeral did for us (we realised as we crawled through a humid rush hour detour near Ealing) was remove some of our fears around death. The seemingly casual ease of the afternoon led to us talking about what we wanted to happen when (if) we die, and to talk to our parents about it, too – we’d seen how joyful a funeral could be, how life-affirming.
I’d always thought of funerals as a place to cry. Instead, it turns out, there’s a way to plan a funeral so that, as well as tears, there’s cake and laughter and the sense of life trundling merrily on, better somehow for having contained the life of the person gone. With its fondness and music, this funeral felt like a really good leaving party, which, I suppose, it was. Everywhere there were people smiling. Everywhere Janet’s friends were admiring the flowers or telling stories, and reaching for each other with meaningful hands and everywhere people were saying, “She would have loved this.”