Brand building through storytelling

A fine funeral

One bright Sunday morning a carload of us hit the road with a sense of occasion. We wore clothes fit for a garden party. We took coffee and banana bread for the trip. We hadn’t seen one another for a decade or more, but that day it seemed we had to be together. All the way to our destination, we shared choice anecdotes about our mutual friend and mentor, Keitha—her contagious exuberance, her bracing wit, her door-slamming temper. Then we took our seats in a little stone church filled with others who loved Keitha too, and prepared to surrender to the collective gratitude and grief that find expression at a good funeral.

Way back before anyone I cared about had died, I cringed at the very thought of funerals. I pictured dark rooms, fussy floral arrangements, ministers droning pieties about people they’d  never known personally. I’ve since discovered that a funeral can be rich in potential—for creativity, for celebration, for a deepened connection with the world. And I’ve developed a few rough working principles about the elements of life’s most undervalued ritual.

Like all memorable funerals, Keitha’s had the personal touch. A display of her journalism recalled the rueful wit she brought to every topic from makeup to marriage; old photos captured the years before I met her. Lo and behold, my straight-talking, jeans-clad friend had once been a miniskirted model, all gloss and glamour! A small revelation, but it brought me comfort. Although I’d never see Keitha again, I could still make discoveries about her.

I know of other funerals that make room for cherished objects—the electric guitar that gave voice to the rebel in someone’s soul, or the carving he made as a child. Such things can lift a mourner’s heart. At my mother’s memorial service, everyone got a copy of her famous recipe for roast chicken.

Then there was the musician whose band mates played New Orleans-style jazz at his funeral in a traditional Catholic church. His widow had to fight the priest to bring in the banjo and trumpet, but her persistance carried the day. Could any other tribute have compared?

While I wouldn’t plan a funeral without a musician or two, I’ve found that nothing beats the power of a hymn sung by enthusiastic amateurs. I’ve never learned my way around a hymnal. But I once managed the soaring inspirational melody of “Jerusalem,” guided by the confident soprano beside me. It was the perfect hymn for the longtime community activist we were honouring that day. As we sang together about the “chariot of fire,” this woman’s passion for justice seemed to light up the church. I realized that the kindness she’d always shown to me—babysitting my colicky newborn, helping out during my mother’s final illness—reflected a larger vision of what we owe one another.

Not that funerals should romanticize the dead. Does the mere act of expiring make them nobler than the rest of us mortals? Let’s celebrate the complex, fallible human beings we loved—the ones who were famous for breaking hockey sticks in frustration or calling their friends on fashion crimes. Over and over, I’ve seen funerals convulse with laughter at the quirks of the departed, none of which bear repeating. You had to be there. And if you were there, getting your mind around the hard new fact of someone’s absence, chances are you craved a good laugh.

When a funeral comes together, there’s a melancholy magic in the air, as if the rituals of remembrance could briefly recreate that special person. Heading home from Keitha’s service, I thought of all the other ways a carload of women could have spent that Sunday—shopping, lunching, unwinding in the whirlpool at the Y. But none of those diversions replenish the spirit like a shared meditation on the things that matter most. Despite what I thought long ago, a funeral isn’t about death at all. It’s about getting on with life.

Click here to read one of my most popular posts, “The necessary art of condolence notes.” 

First published in Chatelaine October 1999. Copyright Rogers Media Publishing. 

Posted by Rona

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