Celebrations of life: The best last choice?

I have been to a number of celebrations of life (with probably more coming), and my take is, they are the Diet Coke of mourning rituals. Though grateful to attend each, I went home with an empty feeling. That may be because I grew up around Irish wakes, intense, deeply cathartic occasions.

When I had a beer with a minister friend, Dr. A., I told her that I felt incomplete after the last celebration, not sufficiently mourned-out. She nodded sagely; Dr. A. always nods sagely. She asked what was missing, and I said, "A frame, the ritual". There are hors d'oeuvres or an elegant lunch, touching speeches, tasteful music, a composed family who circulate: it's a brunch with boxes of Kleenex.

Several friends who left instructions for their celebrations provided a long list of invitees—and they came, along with their plus-ones. As a widowed friend said, "I am going to have ninety three-minute conversations with persons I've never met before."  His feeling was of dread, not celebration. He just wanted to get it over with.

Throughout my early years, there was an inviolable sequence to the rituals of death, and each stage built on the previous: the lulling chant of the rosary at the funeral home; the Mass with its stately eulogy; and finally, the wake at the house, where intimates let down stoic facades. The food and drink comprised what our great-grandmother, known as Ma Reilly, called "a hell of a gorge".

We waked my brother at his farm, after his funeral Mass. (The old Irish tradition waked the person before the funeral, but in modern times, it happens after.) The family invited his closest friends, which included kids and dogs. His widow was held tenderly, supported in every sense. The love and grief was unconstrained by circulating servers and a time limit on the room rental.

For a day and a half, people grilled burgers, took naps, toasted Denny with his favourite cocktail (G&T), brewed tea, played piano, told stories, looked at photos. When celebrations of life include everyone from colleagues who have not seen the person in the dozen years since retirement, to oldest friends, the mix rarely evokes those stories.

I'm thinking, before charging my family to hold a celebration of life, Do I really think those saddened by my death will party down? I understand the celebration aspect is not that I died, but that I lived. Still, these events just don't feel... celebratory. I have participated in other rituals: Jewish shivas, Buddhist rites, secular funerals and a few ash-scatterings of questionable legality but deep emotion.

I like the open house format. If our own home isn't available, I'd like to sidestep a function room with my name on a sign in those little push-in letters. But what will I know?

Al's parents died a few months apart. Honouring their wishes, he spread their ashes in the river behind the pub where they had met in their twenties. Friends dropped in for a pint or coffee and sang the old songs Pete and Peggy loved. I'll always remember forty voices singing,
"I'm only a common old workin' lad
As anyone can see,
But when I get a couple o' drinks on a Saturday,
Glasgow belongs to me!"

What would be your wish?


Unknown said…
The problem with the open house concept is that someone has to host this, and let's me honest, it will be a woman and a woman of a "certain age". I once witnessed the daughter of the deceased frantically washing windows at an open house. I always thought the custom of making the family stand next to the coffin to receive condolences was a form of torture. Not a time for trying to remember names and faces. I told my family to toss me in the dumpster out back. Not one for fuss or expense. -Lily
Kamchick said…
I agree with the first commenter - hosting, of any kind, is not something that I would put on the surviving partner. I am a 'whole body' donor to my alma mater, where I will 'teach' for 2 -3 years. Then my ashes will be returned to my family who know that I want to be 'in my garden'(if we/I still own it) or anywhere else lovely that they would choose - but outdoors, please!
JLTHouston said…
So timely as I have just this week instructed my spouse about this matter. Cremation, no funeral, no memorial or celebration of life. They are just too awkward and void of authenticity. He can do as he wishes with close friends but please just a small group of those “inner-circle” people, I’ve asked.
Duchesse said…
Lily: The dumpster! If the urn is nice, you might end up someone's bookcase ;) It's true the open house has to be hosted, and tidied; someone has to offer refreshments and clean up. The bereaved partner should not have to do any of the work and if there are no friends or family to help with the basics, help can be hired.

The most recent wake I attended was entirely managed by was the adult children (both male and female) of the deceased. No windows cleaned.

Kamchik: I held a tea for my mother that was no work except for making a picture wall, which I enjoyed. It was held in the hotel suite where we stayed, but not in a function room. So, if felt much homier. Maybe that's what I'll ask for, I always liked good hotels.

Duchesse said…
JLTHouston: Wise to indicate your wishes. But watch out for your friends there; I know you have many. My mother said, no funeral, no memorial, no gathering of any kind. (She wanted her ashes to be sent to be interred with my Dad's, so they were.)

I flew to FL to (I thought) deal with her apt. and a few banking matters. But I had not realized that her friends would be upset and very insistent that I hold an event so they "could say goodbye". I ended up having the tea described in my comment to Kamchik. And I did it their way: it was a tea with a bar.
Beth said…
I agree completely. As a lifelong Anglican, I appreciate both the ritual and solemn dignity of the church/graveside service, and some sort of wake. A close friend of mine, a musician, just died and we're in the midst of planning a funeral mass that will probably include a grand sung mass, perhaps one by Faure or Durufle. It will be dignified and sad and, I hope, cathartic -- but a few days before, his close friends and choir members will be gathering for a dinner together, where I'm sure there will be singing, food, drink, and plenty of tears. Please, no tepid "celebration of life" for me.
Leslie M said…

Funerals pain me, but I do enjoy the brunch with family and friends afterwards. An architect/friend died a few years ago. He was too young and his children were way to young. At the end of the service the minister honored Stan’s one request. The organ music to be played had to be Inagaddadavida from The Simpson’s. The organist did a fine job and we all exited the church laughing. Stan always could make us laugh. I loved that service.
I was at a "celebration of life" not long ago, fortunately it really honoured my late friend who was a published writer and very much involved in international solidarity movements and of late, we were both involved in an annual event here devoted to Indigenous art and culture (I'm not Indigenous, but have several Indigenous relatives, from different nations). His three adult sons pretty much organised the event and his wife didn't really have to do anything (and we all ensured that) except receive condolences.

I've attended heartfelt Catholic and Anglican funerals, as well as Jewish ones (my Muslim friends are mostly heathens) but this friend was not religious in a denominational sense, so a religious ceremony would have been false. Same for me. I certainly don't want to prevent believing friends or relatives to lighting candles or praying for my soul, but it would be a betrayal to insert me in a religous ceremony (well, the cult of Bastet the Cat Goddess might be an exception).

Thinking of the wake makes me think of one of my oldest living relatives who is a dyed in the wool Irish Catholic but also a person as forgiving and non-judgemental as the current Pope. I don't like to think of that as she is still vivid at not far from 100, and her mum lived to 102. That Irish/Franco-Ontarian family remembers her mum every day. Her dad lived to 98 or 99.
Duchesse said…
Beth: You put your finger on it, “ tepid”. I have no issue with either worship services or gatherings. Just not tepid.

Leslie M: Wonderful, but who played the interminable drum solo? A friend of mine, a jazz lover, got his staid congregation to allow “ When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” What would you choose? I always thought “ In My Life” ( Beatles) would be good.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Dr. A. told me, with an amused tone, that the Unitarians are offering a funeral service with no mention of a deity. (She is not Unitarian). I think there is a business opportunity here, for the provision of personal, beautifully-composed and led, non-religious services.
Marina said…
We did a Celebration of Life for my late husband because a) he would want that, not a full-blown mourning, b) we as a family were absolutely crushed by his sudden departure and were too fragile to have a sad sad funeral as our background tradition calls.
Also, he was a very renowned figure in his field, recognized throughout the world, and many many of his friends and colleagues wanted to say good-byes. We as a family didn't have to do a thing. Berkeley Nat Lab held that event in its Gardens and it was a beautiful affair with lots of talks, laughs, and memories. It was ideal for me, for our 9yo son, for our older boys as we did not cry and that was wonderful.
His ashes are here, with me in Japanese maple adorned urn. We will not do a thing with them until our youngest son is old enough for all of us to decide what to do with them.
As for me, I am fine with a very brief affair, if any and cremation. Really do not care much.
Duchesse said…
Marina: You remind us that when there are children involved, it is important to choose what is calming and loving for them. So these gatherings, whatever is chosen, are not for our loved one, they are for the family who mourn.

(I had a friend who was convinced he would witness his celebration of life from the beyond, but I am not convinced that happens.)
Laura J said…
Well — since it’s not for me I would let whoever is left to decide what they need — Victorian hearse with plumed black horses or an informal get together— whatever will ease their sadness (If present) or be simple and efficient. What a good post —
Melissa said…
My experiences here in Australia (Anglican) is that we usually have a church service, then we all go either into the church hall or local community hall or scout hall for the wake or back to the family home. In both cases, relatives will have been baking slices and making rounds of sandwiches for the wake unless the relatives don't live close enough in which case this has been provided by the local Rotary club or sometimes the local Primary School mothers as a fundraising opportunity.
I have catered for several local funerals as a Rotary fundraiser and have served the tea and coffee at a number as a school mum to make those ever needed funds. This way yummy homemade food is eaten and the workload either spread or doing good by helping raise community funds.
For the recent funeral of my Father-in-Law, I made a dozen large egg and bacon pies to feed the family as it was his favourite food. Everyone came back to my home and everyone pitched in to make the tea and coffee, serve the champagne and help themselves to the pie and to the slices that my brother-in-law made.
I have already started My Funeral File with a list of poems, readings, hymns and music that the family can choose to include in the service, and all of my wishes in regards to a coffin, ashes, etc. That way the funeral service will reflect my life and not just be a cookie cutter version.
dana said…
It’s none of the deceased’s goddamn business. It’s whatever whoever’s left needs to make it through. Period.

My husband didn’t want any ceremony, but he did want to be buried. He said medicine had enough of his body after cancer treatment. We had a simple family only burial. The rabbi was the mother of one of his trombone students. The shiva was peaceful, until everyone left and his brother screamed at my parents and me.

I held a memorial two weeks later for our children, who were 10, 10, and 13. It was punctuated by brass performances. Groups of students and former students and colleagues played. The trombones of the St. Louis Symphony, the principal Gary’s best friend, played. Everyone with an instrument played Bach at the end. It was a wonderful mix of family, friends, and students that truly invoked his spirit.

Ritual is needed in death. It connects us to the collective, and it removes the need for thought and socializing. Those who are religious have this at hand more readily than those of us who are not. You’re right, D, there’s likely a market.
Leslie M said…

Aretha Franklin “I never loved a man the way I love you” and let the boys figure out who I mean. 😉 or, Joe Cocker “With a little help from my friends”.

And, no drum solo. The only sad part of the service.
Sara I said…
In my family, there is generally a memorial service in the church followed by a meal in the church gym. Funeral potatoes are a thing, and by the end, almost always the little kids are running full tilt around the gym. I don't want a service, and the potatoes aren't that good, but a few swirling kiddie stampedes sound about right. Life goes on.
LauraH said…
Another mind expanding post. I've never thought about this at all...so I guess people can do what pleases them, I won't care:-) 'In My Life' is such a beautiful song, thinking of it takes my back. Many things tend to do that nowadays.
Mary said…
I was 10 when my grandmother died. It occurred in London back in 1960 and it did indeed involve--as someone commented earlier--a wooden Victorian hearse with glass etchings and plumed black horses which we followed to the cemetery--the only good memory of that day. Prior to the funeral, her coffin was kept at my aunt's house (in my cousin's bedroom) where she was laid out in a shroud (no embalming) with only her face visible...ask me how I know. The whole process scared the hell out of me.

The only thing I am sure of for myself is that I want a funeral to involve as little expense as possible as I prefer knowing there is money left for the family and not a funeral home. Cremation, for sure. My family knows that much. I will leave it to them to decide what they want to do (or not do) about my passing as I won't really care and they will.
Unknown said…
Oh, Mary! What a terrible memory! I have been thinking about cremains recently. I was given an urn, along with at least eight other friends/relatives. The instructions were to put Auntie out in our gardens. But what if we move? What if we don't have a garden? I don't want Auntie in the house - bad feng shui or chi IMO. Where does she go after we pass? I understand the wishes, but it is also a burden to the survivors. -Lily
Duchesse said…
Melissa: I am taking your idea with thanks. Funeral File, here I come. There will be options, but it makes sense to exert gentle, non- binding guidance, just as I did in life. The community catering option seems a wonderful option.

dana: Thank you for the detail and reminder that it can be classic ritual but not end well, as in the shiva. Youe care in the memorial for your children and friends reflects your love for everyone...and Bach is always good.

Mary: This was done then ( but dated). My father wanted to be laid out like that and I lived in terror of it all my childhood. It horrified me even anticipating it. But I should have known my mother would never have done it, and didn’t. You lived my worst fear.

Lily: I will channel Auntie and say, “ Then anywhere beautiful, dear.” One friend's mother wanted to parcel out her ashes likevthat, till her priest pointed out that when she rose again all the bits might not find one another.

And depending on where you live, you can’t openly dispose of ashes wherever you want, there are laws.

Sara: Funeral potatoes are new to me. But kids running around is not, however in my family they are only at the wake, not the service, until high school age.

There would have to be a specific Funeral Police to prevent family and friends from scattering ashes on Mont-Royal. It has become a tradition. Hope it helps the soil. I've been to at least three of those.

Sting: All this time (about his dad)
Joanne/Hamilton said…
How refreshing to hear someone who also feels the current Celebration of Life events are lacking. Our society has sanitized death. It is seen as an issue to be glossed over and done away with as soon as possible. I to come from an Irish Catholic family. Death was seen as a natural part of life to be honored with ritual and richness around that was part of the process. The family came together the young met the old and relatives from afar. The two day wake prior to the funeral mass gave relations time to connect. People were given three days condolence leave form work to deal with this passage. The reception after the funeral mass often turned into a party and I still have wonderful memories of these events. The music & stories shared from one generation to the next and sometimes it was even a opportunity to pass down a keepsake. You are right the ritual and frame are missing. Joanne/Hamilton

The posts with the most