My friends are losing their parents, and each has been concerned with the rituals of farewell. Carolyn arranged for pipers to play at her mother's funeral, in honour of her Scottish heritage. Kate and her brother read excerpts of letters they had received from their mother over the years, funny, wise, and occasionally scolding. Alice's father's colleagues provided warm reminiscences in the chapel of the university where he taught for his career.
Each of these gestures reflected the love those gathered felt for the parent.
Joanne faces a different task. If she had once loved Maxine, the feeling was destroyed by instability and her mother's consistent inability to nurture. Because I witnessed some of these behaviours, I'd say Maxine's mothering was about a -3 on a 10-point scale. When Maxine died suddenly, a continent away, Jo felt only relief.
But soon, Jo must stand in front of family and close friends to deliver a eulogy. She has decided to acknowledge the chaos and hardship that led her mother to terrorize her children and family, to say "she did the best she could", then read a poem (to be determined, probably Wordsworth, her mother liked the Romantics), and leave it at that.
The obituary was easier, a précis of facts, history, kin: Maxine lived through the Blitz, then emigrated to Canada, overjoyed to hear that our post-war rationing allotted each adult a half-pound of butter per week.
In my parents' time, you did not "speak ill of the dead". Memorial services sidestepped human flaws, the homilies of faith papered over unspoken pain. The real story often came out when family gathered to dispense of possessions, or at the wake.
When she read the obit to me, I thought of a noted British obituary-writer of the last century, who was known as master of the euphemism. "Possessed a keen intelligence" really meant "pompous know-it-all", "devoted to his work" meant "boring drudge", and "had a large social circle" meant "anything in a skirt".
But in the last decade, I have noticed an increasing tendency toward more candid obituaries and eulogies. An obituary may note, for example, that the deceased "gave her opinion even if we didn't want to hear it", or even mentions darker qualities or struggles. The notices are also reflecting social change; today, I read the first acknowledgment I have seen of a "physician-assisted death", of a man who journeyed to Switzerland for his choice. (For an example of unusual obituaries, see "Nine of the Most Incredible Obituaries Ever Written"; click on the person's name to read.)
Don't we all wish that one day, our surviving family and friends commemorate us tenderly, summoning precious memories? But we reap what we sow, and now that a frank, full assessment is increasingly common, others will speak of us as they think we really were.
"She is at peace now", those who offer condolences often say, but Jo says she too will feel peace, once she has said goodbye with respect and sadness, and in truth.