Death and funerals

I have been thinking a lot about death lately.  Not in a panic or a depression, but in a more analytical or contemplative way.  Perhaps I am coming to terms with death’s finality and its reality.




There are a lot of reasons for this thinking.  First of all, I am getting older and closer to the day of my own death.  Then the public political discourse on health care has taken an odd turn of arguments about whether doctors should consult with patients at government expense about end of life treatment, and there is the ridiculous assertion of the whacky right that the Obama administration is trying to set up “death panels” to euthanize senior citizens.

Another reason I am thinking about death is that a man I lived with for 20 years has just died.  I am still getting my head around his death.  For 6 years after we were divorced we lived in the same town and I watched over him, taking him to the hospital when he was sick or when he had indulged alcohol to the extent of needing medical intervention.  From time to time we went out to dinner, to the theater, or to the opera together.   Three years ago he finally retreated from my life when I remarried. He went back to his home town to be near his sons.  After he left we communicated by phone quite often until he found a new love and had less need to talk to me.  

Yesterday I discovered I needed a certificate of his death.  There is a small sum of money which is to come to me.  I have no way of knowing whether this was his intention, or whether he just forgot to take my name off as beneficiary.  I cannot call him to ask: he was cremated and no longer exists except as ashes.  I would like to think he meant me to have it. 

After he died I had a conversation with his oldest son, executor of his estate, who was uncertain as to where to place the ashes. I was able to tell this son of a family plot in a lovely old graveyard in South Carolina, his home state, where his father and grandfather are buried and where he owned several gravesites.  He and I visited the place about 20 years ago and had a marker put on his father’s grave.



I thought about death again when, in the last few days, I found an old address book and some old photographs.  Many of the names in the book are of people now dead; many of the pictures are of loved ones gone.  I remembered thinking, when I was about 25, how remote death seemed.  At that age I didn’t personally know anyone who had died.

Thinking about death is not new for me.  It is a gradual process that continues in a bumpy course. Sometimes I think that nature is barbaric, and how terrible it will be not to be.  Sometimes I drift into a sort of oneness with nature: my genes will continue, and I, as a unique being with my own consciousness, am unimportant in the grand scheme of things. 

But consciousness, my own, is my only real treasure.  While I live I see art and flowers and sunsets, I hear music, I taste oysters and tomatoes, I touch my husband’s body and feel him touch mine.  When I no longer exist other humans will know such things, but I, Anne, will be gone.  Well, not completely gone for a while.  Those who have known me, especially those who loved me, will remember me, and some of me will remain as memory in their worlds.  Some of the art I have made will remain for a while; some of my words will live for a while.  Eventually all of me will disappear from the earth.  Eventually the earth and all the living things on it will be gone.

When I get to this stage I stop myself.  Though I am not a believer in any religion or in a “life after death”, I am certain of one thing:  I don’t know much, if anything, that I can be certain about.  I don’t understand this universe that I live in a tiny part of.  In spite of the years I have spent studying living things I don’t understand the essence of life (nobody does), and I am not even sure what “reality” is.  There is so much true mystery.  I am so little equipped to solve these mysteries.



That’s when I start to think about funerals.  All cultures have some kind of ritual about death.  Why?  I think it is because of love.  We need to affirm that we loved the one who died, and that we who are still alive love each other. 

Some people specify that no ceremony should accompany their departure.  I think that’s a mistake.  Those who are left behind need to have a way to say goodbye.  My youngest brother was killed in an automobile accident, and my step-mother and father, devastated, decided not to have any sort of remembrance.  I felt an emptiness; that something was missing and the gap is still there 50 years later.  I dislike the overused word closure, and I don’t think it really expresses what’s lacking when there is no funeral or memorial.  It isn’t that one needs a finish, but rather that one needs to find a unity or a continuity; an affirmation that the living are connected to the dead and to each other. 

Some people plan their own funerals, as Ted Kennedy did.  Some have only the traditional ceremony of their religion, some improvise.  Some just have a party.

After my divorce I had an intermittent relationship with an Englishman who had many women in many countries, most of whom had born him children.  I went to England to take care of him while he was dying of cancer.  When I asked him what wishes he had for his funeral he said he would like his children, who ranged in age from 45 to 6, to be there.  I managed to collect 6 out of 7.  There were 3 from England, 1 from France, 1 from Germany, 1 from the United States.  The youngest, a little girl, lives in Seattle and her mother couldn’t afford the airfare.  Some of them had not met until that day.

At my mother’s funeral her step-son encountered his brother’s widow. They had not spoken to each other for 35 years, since the brothers quarreled over their mother’s possessions after her death.  When they met they were civil, and were even friendly late in the day, when we had a family gathering at my sister’s house after the service. Although this amity did not last, it would have pleased my mother to know that, in remembering her, an old feud had been suspended.

I have thought about my own funeral.  I want children, grandchildren, great grandchildren there.  I want whatever friends are left alive to be there.  I want them all to be nice to each other.  I’ll have some music, some hymns:  Fling out the Banner (I loved it when we sang it in school), Our God our Help in Ages Past (another favorite from school), Abide with Me.  I’d like a traditional Episcopalian service.  I’d like a chance for anyone to speak.  Then I want a grand party with laughter and lots of good food and wine.  At the end I want some fireworks.

I hope the people who are there will remember that they are connected together through blood and love; that they will carry on in their lives together and separately, thinking of me sometimes and remembering that I loved each one.

Lobelia and fuchsia

Lobelia and fuchsia

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25 Responses to Death and funerals

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for this absolutely incredibly beautiful post. I’ve had thoughts such as yours but couldn’t string the words together as gorgeously as you have.
    It is bitter-sweet this life we live, and how fleeting our moments.

  2. dale says:

    Yes, lovely.

    I think that when most of us start thinking about not being, we come rapidly to images fully as absurd as the Old Man in the Clouds. We simply can’t imagine it. Which could be simply because there’d be no earthly use in having any conceptual equipment for that. Or because it doesn’t happen: it could be for some reason a logical absurdity. I tend to think we die dead as a doornail, but I know that’s simply because it’s what I grew up believing. Until someone has a convincing description of what consciousness is, I’m skeptical of anyone thinking they can prove that it does or doesn’t continue. Surely we would first have to know what it is, in order to make that call?

    My own religious tradition doesn’t believe that the self, the thing we think of as “I,” survives death. But then, it thinks that “I” is a delusion anyway. Losing a delusion is no big deal. On the other hand, the consolation of a continuing consciousness not recognizably myself, stripped of all its memories, is a pretty damn thin one 🙂

    I agree wholeheartedly about the need for ceremony, and I share your distaste for the word “closure.” It’s more that we’re defiantly holding a door open for a few hours longer, against the wind, than that we’re trying to close it. It all closes soon enough, all by itself.

  3. Marja-Leena says:

    These are so very beautifully expressed thoughts that so many of us struggle with more and more as we age and see loved ones pass on. Just last week a friend’s husband and another friend’s mother passed away so these thoughts are much on my mind. Thank you for your lovely words and photos.

  4. Celeste Maia says:

    Stop the clocks, this is who we are, this is who we have become. Death is just that, stopping the clocks and taking with us all that sums up a life. Like you I want music and laughter at my funeral, and my ashes to be placed in the planting of a lovely tree. But while I am here, be it for a few weeks, or months, of even years, I am going to enjoy everyday. I have just arrived in Madrid and found a house that has been closed for two months. There is urgent housecleaning, food buying, children and granchildren to embrace. As I sit here and read your beautiful entry, the sun is spilling over me like a thick yellow miracle, as if another planet is coaxing me out of the house. So I embrace death and I embrace life.

  5. Alan G says:

    I am sure all of us at our age certainly give death some measure of an audience, whether contemplative or otherwise. I certainly have numerous times.

    The short of it for me, anytime is fine. I about as ready as I can be I suppose. Even though I seem to be healthy at the moment, tomorrow or even this afternoon would be fine with me. I have had a good life and I have lived for almost 68 years. And granted for some of us like me, it is a bit easier to raise the white flag of surrender since I have no spouse or children.

    This past weekend reinforces my thoughts about having lived a long life even though many my age may live yet another twenty years or so. But this past week three 18 year old teenage girls were killed in an automobile accident here locally – having had barely a taste of this life. Not to mention the young men and women in our military. So it is times like that when I think how fortunate I have been to have had a life comprised of 68 years.

    But…..there are two things that do weigh to one degree or another on me when pondering that final curtain. One is the fear of having to live a lonely, lingering, sickly and painful end in a nursing home somewhere. The other is something you touched on. And that is the fact that when I am gone….I am really, really gone. After the dust settles from my death, any footsteps I may have made will be covered and gone. For the average person, their legacy will be short-lived. Now it not really important to me personally that I be remembered for all eternity, but realizing the reality that you won’t be does take a bit of the wind out of this life – philosophically speaking.

    And regardless of one’s beliefs, religious or otherwise, there will come a time when this planet will dissolve into cosmic dust and no matter what your claim to fame may have been – you will cease to exist in every sense.

    On the lighter side, I have always told my sisters over the years that when I died I had a box of invitations to my funeral already prepared and ready to send out. And for those who are not fortunate enough to get an invite to the gala event – well their ass better not show up at my funeral! 😀

  6. Jan says:

    My husband is fond of saying funerals are for the benefit of those left behind, so we’re to do anything we want that makes us feel better when he goes.

    I understand the logic in that, I really do, but I also remember my own mother’s discomfort with death and all it’s trappings. She hated funerals and didn’t want one – she found the entire idea of dressing the dead in their finest and tarting them up with makeup while all of their grieving relatives filed by for a gander obscenely morbid and insisted, for as a long as I can remember, that we were NOT to do that when she died, under any circumstances.

    Needless to say, when she did die (at the ripe old age of 51), my grandmother and uncle took over and that is exactly what they did. I had to fight with them to have her cremated, which was another thing she was completely adamant (they finally gave in on that, but not after having two days of “viewings” and an open casket funeral where they had her dressed in the suit she was married in the last time – grrr). I spent the entire process angry, thinking how much she would have hated what was going on, instead grieving and coming to terms with her death.

  7. Old Woman says:

    Thanks to all for the very thoughtful comments.

    Wisewebwoman, there is something comforting in the thought that we are all in the same boat.

    Dale, everything and all of us may be just an illusion, but if so it is an illusion with internal logic and rational structure. Given that, consciousness is brain based, has a physical origin, and therefore without the physical origin cannot exist. That’s what I think, but then, I may be the hallucinatory construct of some giant at the end of a beanstalk.

    Marja-Leena, Thanks. For mystery, the artichoke is exemplary, don’t you think?

    Alan, I think we all fear the nursing home thing. In the last 2 years of her life my mother had to be in a dementia care place and she hated it. She lived to be 100, and so I guess the solution is not to live too long. How that is managed is a puzzle.

    Jan, I absolutely agree about having the body lying around. At my English friend’s funeral his casket was at the front of the crematorium chapel and at some point in the service it whooshed away on a sort of track to the flames below. Then a curtain closed over the empty space. I did not care for that, especially as I did not know it was going to happen. A funeral should be a coming together of those left behind and, if possible a celebration of the life of the departed. In case there is not much to celebrate I guess that would require some careful thought. But that would be rare, we hope.

  8. Old Woman says:

    Celeste Maia, There are many times when I am too busy to think about dying, and really, those are the best times, are they not?

  9. Darlene says:

    There is a lot of wisdom in your thoughts on death, Anne. It is a subject that has been one of mystery since man evolved. Great religions have sprouted out of the fear of the unknown death.

    I believed that I was quite content to die at any time until I broke my hip. I was in rehab around the holiday and they had a Christmas music sing-along . I was happily joining in when the pianist started White Christmas. For some weird reason, still not understood, I started crying and couldn’t stop. I am not one who cries easily and it surprised me. I realized that this could be my last Christmas on earth.

    I know I was in a weakened condition at the time, but I am still wondering if I am as ready to die as I once thought. My view of death as being the end remains the same, but the acceptance of my departure time is not as firm as it once was. I maintain that as long as I am able to care for myself I want to keep enjoying the pleasures of living, but should I become disabled I am ready to go. Now I am not so firm in my belief and won’t know how I really feel until the time arrives.

    As for what happens after; I certainly will not care and any service my children have will be for their comfort and not mine. I am blessed by knowing that they will be in agreement and will probably have a ‘celebration of life’ service followed by sprinkling my ashes from the same mountain where they sprinkled my husbands.

    I can see why Ted Kennedy planned his own service because he was an important man beloved by thousands and he had to help ease the planning for his family, but my children and grandchildren are the only ones to need comfort after I am gone so they are free to choose what will be meaningful for them.

    I think it would be selfish of me to plan my service because it clearly isn’t for my benefit, but for my survivors. To even imply what I would want can result in the same hurt feelings cited above if my wishes weren’t carried out.

  10. Old Woman says:

    You make a lot of good points, Darlene, but you are lucky that your children will so readily agree on the service. One of the reasons that I have some plans is that it will make it easy for them to say to themselves and eachother “that’s what Mother wanted”. My sister made all the decisions about my mother’s memorial, she told me how it would be, and I had no say. I did not agree with her choices, most of which were made to save herself trouble.

    I guess that these things are all so individual that there isn’t any right way for all of us.

  11. Celeste Maia says:

    Aristotle argued in the “Nichomachean Ethics” that it could only be said at the end of a human life whether that human being had flourished. A dull or unsatisfactory day, or years of disappointment, can be redeemed by a burst of glory at the end.

  12. Annie says:

    I am just catching up on your last several posts. I think this one is one that we all want to write but are maybe sometimes afraid to. I also loved reading abut your daily routine, which sounds so peaceful. I am sorry about the situation in manley, I hope all is well when you get there.

  13. Beautiful post! Love it. I especially like the idea of fireworks at your funeral. Wonderful!

    My mother planned her own funeral and I liked that we were doing what she wished for, it made the ceremony complete. We kids were barely functional, I am not sure we could have pulled it off as well as she did. It also was a final glimpse into who she was, and what was important to her.

  14. Natalie says:

    What a great, thoughtful post. Thank you! I’d like to see death become less of a dirty word in our society. Posts like this will help people to reflect on life and death, and to talk about it. That’s a good thing.

  15. Mage B says:

    You have stirred us all up. Not that we haven’t all been thinking about this, but you have blown away the cobwebs.

    After my mother was cremated, my step father put her box in her chair. For a year or so, there sat mother in her chair in their living room. One day she was gone. Just gone. No ceremony, no nada. Silence. I still regret this choice, I would like to know what he did with her, and where she is.

    Yes, it was a shock when my first husband had a heart attack.

    Me….funeral expediency. I joined the military so I could get out of the house. It’s the one decision I made young that has kept giving good back into my life even if I don’t believe in wars today. They will bury me for free…..up in a National Cemetery above my house. Perhaps someone could have a party for me afterwards. I’d smile knowing this.

  16. Friko says:

    You have certainly thought about death. As have I very much, recently, to the extent of thinking about letters for those in the family with whom I have lost touch, about lists of things I want certain people to have, (not just the will – that’s too formal), a list telling everybody how I want my non-funeral to be, how I would like them to remember me, at least for a while.
    What strikes me about your post is the absence of fear, the complete acceptance of the end we all face eventually. I don’t really fear death and I don’t really care very much about a great to- do after I’m dead, like you, I have no religious allegiance at present, but I rather like the thought of becoming one with the cosmos, whatever that might mean.
    For the moment though, let’s live a little longer and enjoy every day.

  17. Mage B says:

    RYN: Oh, you make me laugh. Short pants are still in….try the hated Lee Riders at Walmart or JCPenney’s. They fit me just right, high and comfortable. T shirts are still tight but now they are long… be worn in layers….I don’t think so in this heat. At least, every thing is to be worn out this year. That helps hide my bulges. LOL

  18. Dick says:

    Little to add to the appreciations above, Anne. Thank you for this calm, measured contemplation of the ultimate subject – the more so for your profession of non-faith.

  19. Cathy says:

    What is it about Autumn that brings about our thoughts of passing to the other side – where/what ever that may be? As usual, I love the way you think and express it in words. Thank you.

  20. Rain says:

    I have also been thinking about death which I do off and on but never come to a satisfactory conclusion for what happens. Maybe I never will. In our family we do not do funerals anymore. That began with my father who detested them and was definite about his own wishes. What we do is have a family gathering at the graveside before the burial but with the body there. The funeral home helps this happen. Nobody does the speaking but we all take turns if we wish to say something. Sometimes we sing but then we come back to the house and have a meal together. To me the funerals in funeral homes are cold and not what I want at all for myself. The graveside gathering does what you are suggesting is needed but informally. I also, when I am doing them, put together photos and remembrances at my home of their lives.

  21. What an unusual and wonderful post, Anne. Every time I think of my own memorial service, I hope someone will remember to play Amazing Grace, even if I am a heathen.

  22. dale says:

    Whoa, now, I didn’t say everything was an illusion! Just our conception of the self 🙂

    An old philosophy professor of mine, an atheist, used to say that there were six basic theories about the relationship between body and mind, and that they were all clearly wrong 🙂

    Alan Wallace has a nice run-down of various hypotheses of the relationship between brain and mind: your hypothesis (that mind is an emergent property of the brain) is perfectly plausible, but so are many others — that mind is refracted through the brain, like light through a prism, for instance. I don’t think any of the hypotheses rises to the level of theory, personally. Most of what we know about this stuff comes from introspection, which is inherently unreliable. Exactly how a creature becomes aware that it is thinking, or why it would do so, is difficult to explain under the emergent property hypothesis; but they all have difficulties.

  23. Pat says:

    First thank you for visiting my blog and the lovely comments you made. And, now that I am here let me say how lovely, intelligent and insightful I find your blog and especially this post. I suppose, yes, autumn is a catalyst for these ruminations. That and reaching ‘un certain age’ and these thoughts are not so far away and the reality more real. Thank you so much for your wise words and share experiences.

  24. I am just catching up too, and want to thank you for this lovely entry.

  25. Wynne says:

    Great post, Anne. Autumn, the time of migration, seems ripe for such thoughts.

    As to ceremonies . . . have you seen the Japanese award-winning movie “Departures”? Funny,gentle, compassionate and poignant story of a young classical cellist who finds himself employed by a practitioner of the ancient Japanese tradition of preparing the body for burial, in the company of the deceased’s family. Sounds totally grim but it *definitely* is not. I recommend it highly. It’s not yet out on DVD but I imagine Netflix will have it when it’s released.

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