Funerals, families and legacies

I have reflected more than once in recent times that I now find myself going to funerals a lot more than I used to. While that is to be expected, given the number of older people, often they are my near contemporaries, I know, some of these funerals are for younger people, who have died before their time. This week I attended two. I find funerals are quite different in how they are conducted, e.g. the tone that is set, the attendees, the religious content along with the inescapable question of life after death (in every case there was some, even in the humanist ones) and the family dynamics.

It would be inappropriate to comment on individual funerals other than to make general points. In all these funerals, I was there to pay my respects to the one whose funeral it was and support those who were close. Death is a great leveler, whether the deceased or the mourners, one’s position in life is nigh irrelevant. It happens to us all and it can happen at any time. The Prayer Book soberly reminds us (and it is good to be reminded): “for we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it” (1Timothy 6:7) and  “in the midst of life we are in death:“. It is always a salutary reminder to realize how short our time is on earth and life is a gift, especially when as sometimes is the case I meet up with those I knew many years back, when they were young and vigorous, and now they are old and doddery. I also find funerals can also be great get togethers!

The first thing to strike me about funerals is the important part played by families, who are often rightly deferred to when making arrangements. Sometimes families have drifted apart but when it comes to funerals, this is a time for them to come together and one hopes when there has been a rift in the family that this might lead to a reconciliation. Being brought up in the Christian faith, it might be expected that I would say families are important, but the older I get the more important I realize families are and that this applies irrespective of one’s religion or lack of. I also realize families can be hard work, can cramp one’s style and lead to grief one would rather avoid. The upshot is families split – husbands and wives separate, children and parents grow apart, and so on. Yet, while all this is understandable, I see the value of spouses sorting out their differences, learning to give and take, forgiving and supporting one another, allowing each space and so on. The same goes with parents and children. I love to see parents loving their children and the other way round, and it never ceases to amaze me when parents sacrifice and care for their children and the other way round, when parents are old and infirm and need to be cared for by their children. One of the greatest needs in our society today are strong families and not just the nuclear family but reaching out to and embracing the many folk, often alone, that value being adopted into a caring family.

The second thing to strike me about funerals is the salutary reminder that life is short, and how one goes from being young to becoming old in no time at all. While there are advantages to getting old, the disadvantages are obvious, starting from more often than not deteriorating health, including in many cases the onset of dementia, and that one is able to do a lot less than one used to, and with the ever looming prospect that the next funeral could well be one’s own. It is always encouraging to come across positive older people, who help put life in true perspective. I spent time with two such yesterday. One was a seventy five year old man. Together we cleared the leaves from our church car park and it was good to share banter and dialogue on all sorts of subjects. The other was a ninety two year old lady, who I was able to take shopping, who showed remarkable insight into what was happening around her. Both recognized life was a gift and the need to take each day as it comes, be thankful and make the most of it. It also made me realize, something that I am increasingly becoming conscious of, the importance of leaving a legacy for those who come after. The best funerals are when the deceased has done just that. It can be done in so many different ways, especially with family. For me though, it is about passing the baton on to the next generation and tackling the gaps that are all too evident, yet it is impossible to be prescriptive.

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