The mother of a friend of mine died last week, while the friend was home visiting. The death was sudden—and quick—with her mom doing much the same as my dad did: dying in someone arms, in this case, her eldest daughter's, my friend's. She's the only one to have moved away from the hometown and seems to be having the roughest time of it, which doesn't surprise me; it's always hardest when you're not there all the time. No matter what, there's a sense of guilt wrapped up in that. But because she's an observant person and analytical, she's been watching and reporting on the reactions of her siblings and father, and comparing them with her own.
It's a natural reaction, I suppose; I remember buying books to see if what I was feeling and what I was doing in reaction to my parents' deaths was "normal." It took me a long time to realize that there is no normal. As I wrote her a few days ago, it's one of the most universal of experiences and also one of the most personal. It's different for every person and different for every loss. So much affects it: circumstance, cause, age, length of illness, our own emotional make-up and baggage, the culture we grew up in, and the culture we live in now, our religious beliefs, our own spirituality—and how other people around us act.
My friend was unlucky enough to run up against the same rigidity of religious custom that I was when I was arranging my mother's memorial service. It came out nothing like I wanted and said nothing about her. My friend had a little more luck than that, but why it should be an issue at all is beyond me. The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over what's "proper" or "traditional." The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over anything, frankly, to do with showing respect for the dead.
Burial customs seem far more fraught and freighted than marriage or birth customs, I suppose because there is so much guilt wound up in death, even if we haven't aided or abetted it, or even neglected the person while they were alive. An awful lot of people seem to be very invested in "doing it right," whatever that happens to constitute in your particular culture, regardless of what the dead person might have wanted. My friend Helen has made it clear that she'd like Van Morrison blasting at her memorial service and an open bar. When one of her cousins heard this, her response was "Not if I have anything to say about it!"
But why should she? It's Helen's choice. That's like planning someone else's wedding for them (which is certainly done, and far too often I might add). When my dad died, there was no memorial service, no funeral, no nothing, because that's what he wanted. I sent him off with a toast to the Old Soldier from Mike and Brian, and scattered his ashes in the woods by myself. I'm sure that was viewed as extremely cold by the rest of his family, but that was what he wanted, and he'd made that clear for years. And when Mom died and he didn't want to go to the memorial service I had for her (such as it was) I didn't insist that he go. I knew it wasn't because he didn't love her; it was because social situations of any kind make him extremely nervous and because he was really broken up and didn't want to cry in public. What purpose would it serve to torture him about it? He was already miserable enough.
The idea that funerals are for the living seems just an excuse to make them another occasion for reinforcing social norms. No ceremony is going to make that person any less "gone" in your life or make the pain of losing them go away. What it often does instead is provide a lot of hard feelings and rancor among the living. Death seems to bring out the worst in us, probably because we're all so damn scared of it. I think what they really do, especially Western funeral customs, is tidy the dead away so we don't have to deal with them. They remove us from the process and the reality and turn it into a sanitized monetary transaction that can just about bankrupt the survivors at the hands of the unscrupulous.
But this is the kind of conclusion you come to only after you've gone through the actual mourning process itself, during which even the best and most level-headed of us will generally lose at least parts of our mind. It's a release for some, a relief for many, the most painful thing they'll ever experience in their lives for most of us. It makes us stupid, impulsive, angry, depressed, and somewhat crazy. You can't really hold people responsible for much of what they say and do when they're grieving, you can only support and love them and hope they come back to themselves eventually.
I'd originally written "get over it" but that's nuts: you never get over it, no matter how reconciled you are to the idea. There's a point at which people's patience with you tends to run thin, so I think many people "act as if" but really, you're never over it. It crops up in the middle of the night, or at odd moments and the next thing you know you're weeping. That's a lesson I learned the hard way, too. My family has obviously always been pretty pragmatic about death and I was pretty much ready for both my folks to go when they did. By that I mean I could see it coming, knew it was inevitable, but didn't realize what a shock it would still be. It's been nearly four years since Mom died, and my friend's mother's death brought it all back to me in a kind of sickening rush, blind-siding me. Losing one or both of your parents is an initiation into a club that nobody wants to belong to.
This is really why we send flowers and cards, I think: to welcome the living into the Bereavement Club. The dues are harsh, but the company is good.