Sunday, 21 October 2012

A Funeral Code of Conduct

I attended at funeral today. It was heart-wrenching and brutal. Most funerals are. The deceased was a lovely woman who played an important role for The Husband during his formative years. She was a strong, fiercely independent, family-centred, caring, funny, and humane lady who, like many, suffered illness for too many years and died far too young. I liked her instantly from the day I met her, and my opinion of her did not waver in all these years. My guess is that the majority of the people in the crowd today felt as I did. And would be hard pressed to glean anything about this special human being from the service we collectively attended this afternoon. While her two sons recounted loving memories of their mother with grace and dignity, another so-called "family friend" had the crowd squirming in palpable discomfort as he selfishly prattled on with anecdotes about her late husband that barely involved the poor woman. He thought it funny to discuss pornography, misogynistic girl-chasing, told off-colour jokes, and did all of this without any notes or preparation. It was the capper to an hour long service that dishonoured a wonderful woman.

It is one of the most unfortunate duties of my work to attend and officiate at funerals. I have seen a great deal over the course of my career and I am usually loathe to criticize. Dealing with and comforting mourners offers a unique window into the human psyche, and what might work as words and acts of comfort for one, may not suffice for others. In short, everybody grieves differently and far be it from me to tell anybody how best to fathom a loss in often unfathomable circumstances. That said, I do believe that we have become extraordinarily lackadaisical in what might be considered appropriate funeral behaviour. It isn't as though I am asking for wailing, rending of garments, and sackcloth and ashes, nor am I suggesting that laughter at a funeral is inappropriate, but I am calling for a modicum of respect for the deceased, their mourners, and a return to some understanding of what the occasion is. Hence I offer you some quick and helpful hints for funeral attendance.

  1. Turn off your cell phones. Yes, that means you and you and you and everybody else who thinks that the first request from the funeral directors didn't include them. You aren't that important that you can't be out of touch for an hour or more. If you are....don't come. Cell phones tweeting, beeping, ringing or  worse...being answered intrude on the personal grieving space of a funeral. A funeral isn't about you and your Facebook updates.
  2. Please stop talking incessantly to your neighbour. I hate sitting amongst people who cannot shut up. I don't care about your car trouble, babysitting issues, dinner plans, or kid's hockey scores. I hate having to shush people at a funeral.
  3. If you are asked to speak at the service, treat that request as the tremendous honour that it is. I often marvel at mourners who are able to, in the face of great adversity and grief, speak with eloquence about their loved ones. Not everybody can do it and not everybody should attempt to do it. But if you do find yourself in such a situation one word comes immediately to mind...PREPARATION! Nobody and I mean NOBODY can speak well off the cuff at a funeral. Clergy people don't do it and they do this on a far more regular basis than the average funeral goer. Write down your thoughts, your words, your stories, and your feelings. Don't get caught in the rambling loop that sounds like a 13 year old girl's Bat Mitzvah speech.
  4. When preparing your remarks, remember that it isn't about you. People want to hear about the deceased, not about your yearly Florida trips with her husband or your inside jokes. Tell us about how this person affected your life. Tell an anecdote or two, but remember that there are people there longing to feel closer to the person that they just lost. It is your job to help facilitate it.
  5. Remember that amongst the crowd there is a mixed bag of beliefs, customs, social conventions, and ideas. Language matters. You come off looking like an ass if you breach accepted social norms.
Unfortunately The Husband and I-and several hundred others today-had to suffer the foolishness of one man's self-involvement, and it came at the expense of our ability to properly say goodbye to a beloved friend. I am just asking for some mutual respect, not a cookie cutter view of mourning practices. May her memory be forever a blessing.

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