It’s probably fair to say that nobody is at their best at a funeral. Even where the death is not unexpected, or perhaps has come as an end to suffering, they are stressful affairs. There is little time to prepare, those closest to the deceased are distressed and upset, and the tight schedule may prevent far flung friends or family members from attending. I’ve attended funerals where the family have had no say in the proceedings; others where the minister has been far more focused on the afterlife than the actual life, and as a result, the family has come away feeling upset. Most standard North American funerals over the last couple of hundred years have been little more than exercises in legally required box ticking, overlaid with a veneer of sententious judgment. It’s time we came to expect more, and to do justice to the lives of those we have lost.
Grief is a form of emotional protection against death, but it won’t necessarily bring acceptance.
The Celtic wake tradition, where friends and family gather before the funeral to eat, drink and remember is a little better, but even so, there is little time to prepare, and some people simply cannot be there. In this situation, for the family at least, grief will often outweigh all other considerations. Not that grief is a bad thing, or unwelcome at these times. Grief is necessary, but it’s a potent anaesthetic; think of how often people talk about feeling ‘numb’ or ‘in a state of shock’ when grieving. Grief is a form of emotional protection against death, but it won’t necessarily bring acceptance. Why should you accept death? Because death is a fact of life. Apart from being born it’s the only thing we all have in common. In the fact, if not necessarily the manner, death is scrupulously fair. The old saying goes that you can’t escape death or taxes, but the truth is that tax is far less equitably distributed than death.
Above all, the mood is of celebration, not lamentation.
The celebration of life takes us beyond grief to a place where we accept that our loved one is no longer with us, and it permits us to enjoy their memory – for who and for what they were. There is no time restriction for a Celebration of Life. It’s not driven by the funeral clock, which means you do have time to prepare. You can organize a celebration that makes sense, that speaks to the essence of the deceased, and accept that it’s even okay to have a good time with it. It can be a month, three months, a year later; on your schedule. It’s more likely that friends and family from far away can attend; it’s altogether more rational. Above all, the mood is of celebration, not lamentation. Ideally, the celebration of life lets us recognize that death and birth are the bookends to our lives, and maybe that can help reduce the sting of fear. Yes, your loved one is gone – although even that boundary may be a little blurred with some recent green funeral options – but at least they were once here, and you got to know them, and to spend time together.