My elderly neighbor passed away last week. Though I only came to know her over the course of the past year, I cherished her friendship. She was warm, funny, razor sharp and kept herself engaged -- and engaging -- to the very end. I hope to be just like her when I'm 90.
In order to pay my respects, I went to her funeral last week.
I'm not sure if I'm going out on a limb here, but I actually enjoy going to funerals.
Sure, they are sad occasions brought on by sad events. But they are also a joyous celebration of life that is at once poignant, edifying and, above all, calming.
Here's why I think funerals are an uplifting ritual of adulthood:
1) You get to know the person better.
Most funerals invite a series of people to talk about the deceased and offer insights into different aspects of that person's life: as spouse/partner, as parent, as colleague, as friend. And I find that I always learn something new about the person that enables me to know them better. At my father's funeral two years ago, one of the people he mentored got up and talked about what he'd learned from my dad about the practice of law. I knew that my father had touched many people's lives over the course of his career, but I hadn't fully realized to what extent. Similarly, at the funeral of my landlord, I discovered that in addition to her long career as a teacher and educator in London, she'd also been a prima ballerina, performing and teaching around the world and winning a prestigious lifetime achievement award last autumn from the Royal Academy of Dance. I left the funeral feeling that I knew her that tiny bit better: more to savor, more to remember.
2) You get outside your own routine.
Funerals can be a time sink. At a minimum, they usually last one to two hours (depending on whether or not you're going to the burial), and that's not including travel time. It can be tempting in such circumstances to focus on all the canceled meetings, missed phone calls and rescheduled childcare. But I think that the lost time is a good thing because the hassle is part of the experience. Much like taking a sick day or going on a staycation, going to a funeral forces you to get outside of your own routine. And that's really worthwhile. In requiring you not to operate on auto-pilot, a funeral jolts you into awareness about what it is that you are doing.
3) You engage in mindfulness.
OK, true confession: I'm still not sure that I fully grasp exactly what mindfulness is. But I think it has to do with learning how to be in the moment and to focus inward rather than chasing the myriad distractions that attend everyday life. I find that when I'm in a funeral -- and regardless of whether or not it's a religious service -- I'm not only solemn but hyper-aware of my surroundings: how the processional march sounds, the smell of the furniture/pews, the shuffle of my dress as I stand or sit. And I love that. As someone who often has trouble mono-tasking, I welcome this sort of uber-attentiveness to the here and now.
4) You learn about traditions around death.
Every religion has its own rituals for dealing with death. I grew up Catholic, so I was quite used to the open casket wake where people come to a funeral parlor to view the body and pay their respects in the days preceding the funeral. Jews typically sit shivah, which is a seven-day grieving process that takes place at a family members' home. At the funeral last week, each of us sprinkled a bit of earth on the coffin once it had been lowered into the ground. But an Israeli friend I was with told me that in the Jewish tradition, people take turns shoveling earth onto the coffin until it is entirely buried. I love learning about other communities' rituals, and funerals offer an entry into that.
5) They bring closure
The funeral may not bring emotional closure (that can take years, if not a lifetime, to sort out), but it does mark an end to that bizarre odyssey of planning and preparation that accompanies a death, in which you are simultaneously blown over by the toll of your loss but equally distracted by all of the work that necessarily goes into a funeral ritual of any sort. And for many of us, that's when we truly begin to grieve.