Funerals are a time for leave taking, and so on the morning of February 23, 2010, we formally said goodbye to my father. I have long thought that these rituals around the death of a person were an important psychological and social way of helping the living to move forward, whatever the religious beliefs might be about the soul or the body, or the hereafter. This is hardly a novel idea, as any observant member of a society will acknowledge, and as any anthropologist would agree. However, putting theory into personal, rather than professional practice is quite different.
Our tasks in both preparing the funeral and grieving were greatly facilitated by 3 things: my father and mother both decided long ago that they wanted a small service with only very close friends and family, to be cremated, and buried in my father's family's plot; my father when he was feeling very ill reiterated the same wishes, and that there be no notification in the newspaper or at any of the social groups he belonged to, specified the funeral home, and no visitation (viewing the body in the casket for days or hours before the funeral service); and, his Roman Catholic faith, and being a member of a parish.
In the mind numbing shock and grief, all we had to do was speak to the priest who is the head of his parish, who told us to contact the funeral home. A wonderful funeral director took us under wing. I must say that the experience was far more dignified, far more adhering to my father's or our wishes, and far less commercial than I had expected, but with some wonderful suggestions. There are things one doesn't know of, unless one has been in this situation, like who does the death certificate for the government, who calls whom about cremation, burial, city permission to be put in the ground, etc., and it definitely helps to have someone calmly, competently, and professionally guide one through it.
By chance, the priest my father knew best was the one to perform the Catholic liturgy of death. This too was surprisingly more relevant than I thought it might be. It included some elements of a mass, but was obviously designed to emphasize that my father was now with Jesus, not alone, not suffering, but welcomed by his Saviour, and now, more than ever, in his care. It also emphasized that we must accept this death, with sadness but understanding; and the priest's words included a reminder that after the shock, and the bustle of preparation, and the funeral, internment, and gathering of family and friends, there would be more grieving to do, and more life to live--as my father would have wanted us to.
The priest had asked us for information about my father's earlier life, and included it all appropriately, capturing him extremely well. He included a quote, "as one daughter asked [me] to", from an email that I had received from Abu Abdullah, and which I, my mother, and my sister thought captured well the essence of a father, and of my father: "A father is a guide and a mentor; a man who loves you more than himself."
My sister remarked later on how different this service was than the Protestant one she attended for a friend's father--more ritualistic, and structured. Also, we realized mid-funeral that all of us had trouble with the Lord's Prayer (the Our Father...). My mother, sister, and I went to public schools where the Lord's Prayer is the Protestant version. We had to consciously stop at "...deliver us from evil", and add the Amen there. Since the Lord's Prayer is no longer part of the public school morning ritual, my nephew (baptized but does not attend religious instruction) has never heard it. Fortunately, it was repeated with time delay by the group and he has a good ear, so by the last time we prayed that same prayer he had it down--the Catholic version. Wait until he finds out there is potentially more!
When the service concluded we drove behind the lead car to the cemetery. We stood beside the family head stone, with my father's ashes in a small wooden casket-shaped container, covered with red velvet, and a gold crucifix on top. The crucifix was a surprise but a beautiful one. More prayers were said as snow fell lightly on the tree tops, the bushes, and the headstones of the cemetery. At the end, the priest handed the crucifix to my nephew, and the funeral director handed each of us a long stemmed red rose from our funeral arrangement, and then each of those in attendance placed their rose on the wooden box which would be lowered into the ground after we left.
Close friends and family gathered at my parents' home (it will always be "their" home to me), for a luncheon and to share remembrances, and condolences. Among those who attended were lifelong colleagues and friends of my father's. One of them, whom neither my sister nor I recognized, was the first to arrive at the funeral home. My mother did recognize and greet him, and then between the first name and the Scot brogue we knew exactly whom we were greeting. He had come, he thought , uninvited, because he wasn't checking his phone messages often while his wife was in rehab after breaking her femur in a fall on the ice. He apologized for coming, saying "I'm sorry, but I heard about his death, and I just couldn't live with myself if I didn't attend the funeral". He just guessed at the time and place, and was right. He was of course welcomed, and reassured he had been invited all along.
Family included my paternal uncle's son who looks most like my father, and has a very similar emotional structure and accepting personality. The likeness was confirmed by all, including my cousin himself; and by his sister who pointed out the family portrait of my father at 12ish, with his brother 18ish, and his parents, and said--"My brother looked exactly like him at that age". He had flown in on short notice, and was a great comfort to us all. I don't know about the others, but for me, his stature and general likeness to my Dad were a pleasure. Perhaps that is why we spent so long talking to one another.
Like most of these gatherings it turned into a celebration of my father's life, a catching up, promises of future get togethers, and genuine offers of help. One of my paternal cousins said in a phone message "Now the 2 brothers are united in heaven"; another that he had "the biggest heart of all the family". My mother's family were there to support her, and also loved him. We ended up having a big laugh about the first time I met one of my older maternal cousin's daughters: she flipped over in the wading pool I was life guarding and her mother and I reached for her at the same time--and then recognized each other. In short, the conversations wandered away from the deceased, then back again, and away...as they should in the grieving process.
Now I get to experience first hand the stages of grief that I have learned, analyzed for patients, and taught...a less comfortable position to be in, for sure. I am getting faster at remembering when I wake up and listen for him in the next room, that no, it's okay, he is in hospital, ah...no, he no longer is; and not crying at every reminder. Those do sneak up on one though: like going for a long walk with my mother, and saying to each other, "By now he would have come looking for us in the car, to make sure we still wanted to walk the rest of the way home in the snow and cold"; or walking past the Italian bistro near the supermarket; or playing football (badly) with my nephew. So I know I have a hard six months ahead, then an easier six, and don't have to diagnose myself with a psychiatric disorder unless the grief is abnormally severe after 2 years. Of course, for my mother, all of this is far worse, and for my nephew remains to be seen. My sister is more overt with her emotions than I, but coping...sort of.
We all are coping, sort of. My nephew's worst moment was when he discovered that a neighbour and his 9 year old son, as a kindness on learning of my father's death, shoveled our driveway and walkways after a major snow storm. My nephew was inconsolable. He had wanted to do it himself, as his job now, for the family, and the way Grampa taught him. He read a version of the tribute I did to my father in the previous post, and said "I have the tool room now, it's mine, and the garage and the shed". He needs the legacy and the role for which he was enjoying being the helper. He is a bit more clingy about us coming and going, or my sister driving on the highway to the school where she teaches.
The dog, Whisper, is just discombobulated. She used to watch for him to come in when the rest of us entered, but stopped after a while; and made a point of ignoring the clothes we brought home from the hospital after he died. She used to guard him when he was ill, which is not her breed type. When we had the family gathering she welcome people with silent grace, but barked when they wanted to leave. Her breed (Coton de Tulear) does have separation anxiety, and she was crying and looking at his empty chair at dinnertime this evening. She is just generally not herself.
Nonetheless, with the funeral over, and as the priest emphasized, it is time to say goodbye to the expectation of a physical presence, and embrace the memories, the souvenirs, and the legacy of attitudes, values, and ways that my father has left behind. For that reason, along with his favourite aria, Nessun Dorma, the other musical piece at his funeral was "Time to Say Goodbye".
A concert version, "Time to Say Goodbye/Con te partirò", Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman
Since it is time to get back to normal, some questions for your reflection and comments:
How do the events described compare to your own ways, or religious/cultural ways, of observing the passing of a loved one?
Does anything directly contradict your own experience?
If you have lost someone close, what helped you the most in the immediate time after the death? In the later stages of grieving?
If you have lost a good friend, how did you mark that passing? How does it affect you now?
Do you think family pets have grief reactions too?
Please feel free to share your own experiences of religious rituals of death and mourning, your own grieving, or any other thoughts, experiences, or comments.