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I've just been to a darned good funeral

Posted by BJ Roche  April 21, 2011 12:54 PM

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Lucky is the lady who is genuinely sad when her mother-in-law passes, and fortunate is the woman whose daughter-in-law can deliver a great eulogy.

The daughter-in-law in question is my sister, who, last fall, with a deft mixture of stand-up and grace, spoke from the pulpit at the funeral of her mother-in-law Margaret, who died in her late 80s. I brought my mom and we marveled at the service, which Margaret had planned. It turned out to be a meditation on loss, but also a remembrance of a long life, well-lived: trips to nearly all 50 states and most national parks, Michigan rummy games with grandchildren on summer nights, long-time friendships established and well-tended.

Woodman's sent a keg of chowder for the luncheon, held in the social room at the church, and Margaret's friends - there sure were a lot of them - served and cleaned. (Memo to self: get more friends.)

When I turned 50, my mother warned me that I'd be attending more funerals than weddings from here on out, and this has turned out to be true. What I hadn't considered was the variety and fullness of the ritual, and the tender details that inform it: the perfume Margaret's granddaughters sprayed onto the funeral programs; the Maeve Binchy my cousin tucked into my aunt's casket (plain pine, which she had to fight like hell with the funeral director to get).

It's particularly remarkable given the stress and battles that can take place in a family dealing with end-of-life issues of an elderly parent. And of course I speak of funerals that take place after a full life, not the ones that arrive any sooner or by surprise. There's nothing that makes the burial of a child in any way palatable; my mother knows that also.

Things have changed since my father's funeral 25 years ago, when my mother battled unsuccessfully with the Catholic priest over the right to play "Danny Boy" at the Mass.

Fast-forward to a few years ago, when my neighbor Fred died. His wife Debby had cared for him at home in his final months, and instead of carting Fred off to a funeral home, she decided to do the whole ritual at their home.

Fred was buried by his friends in a neighbor's field, in a casket they built from wood harvested not far from his house. As friends lowered Fred's casket into the ground, his friend Harvey held a boombox high over his head, blasting an aria from "La Boheme" as a cold wind whirled all around us.

Now that was a funeral.

Or at least I thought it was until I went hunting around on the web and found that a lot of people are, as one site put it, "thinking outside the box" when it comes to funerals.

Among Fred's mourners was Tom Wilson, who has worked with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Western Mass., a subgroup of the national Funeral Consumers Alliance, which helps people make informed choices about how they'd like to go, and start the planning. It seems like a good idea.

They offer a booklet called Before I Go, You Should Know.

Where I live now, you are as likely to see a crew of Morris Dancers at a funeral as not; a friend recently stopped by with photos of a funeral in Wendell in which a troupe of dancers accompanied the horse-drawn carriage carrying the casket. "It felt kind of weird taking pictures at a funeral," he said. "But it was a pretty unique occasion."

But where I grew up, the 50- and 60-somethings I went to high school with recently honored the early passing of a friend at a gathering at the local VFW that looked like this:


Michael Clough video

Of course, everyone posted photos on Facebook of the event the next day, and it looked like a baby boomer version of the Irish wake: a good time was had by all, just as the deceased probably intended. This, too, marks the sign of a good funeral: I didn't really know this guy, but after seeing the memorial his friends threw for him, I sure wished I had.

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About the author

BJ Roche is a writer and teacher who lives in Western Massachusetts. She’s a senior lecturer in the Journalism Program at UMass Amherst, where she teaches writing, new media and More »

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