Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 18, 2016

For the living

I've been thinking quite a bit about funerals lately. The death of a neighbor in December, Mom's passing Feb. 20 and the death March 6 of First Lady Nancy Reagan have prompted these thoughts.

Mom had written in moderate detail what she wanted at her service, including hymns and Scripture verses she wanted to include. Since her instructions contained nothing unusual, carrying out her wishes for her memorial service was pretty straightforward. Eric, one of the funeral home directors, commented that he wished everyone was so well organized. And as strange as it may sound, my many years of event planning probably made the process easier for me than for some others.

But what I have been thinking about recently is not so much what is done at a funeral, but why we have them in the first place. As with so many things, it appears that the answer varies with the people involved. Husband Art's family is on what I would call the minimalist side. Several times during Mom's rapid decline and subsequent death, he mentioned that he didn't feel particularly sad, but most of the time actually felt glad. Not glad because she was leaving, but because she had enjoyed her life, it had been a long one, she was at peace with what was coming and because the end would probably be easy for her.

While that didn't describe my emotions, I understand. Art was very close to both of his parents. While his father Tom died before I met him, I had known his mother Donna for more than 20 years. We were sitting eating lunch with a friend at McDonald's when Art received the call that Donna had died. He sort of sighed and then went on.

There was no funeral or service for either of them and neither had wanted one. Art said his Dad was fond of saying that funerals are for the living and they should be tailored for the needs of the living. Art says the goal should be to live one's life fully and hopefully slip out of it reasonably gracefully. The ones that are hard for him are the long tortured exits or the death of someone whose life never seemed to come to fruition, such as that of a young person.

Art's family may have the emotional and logical parts of their head more in sync than I do. I think for me and many other people, a funeral is needed to somehow bring the two parts together. It is an event unlike any other that provides an opportunity for family and friends of the person who died to say their "goodbyes," whether spoken or unspoken. It may be particularly helpful when these people are geographically widely spread or when the death is unexpected. The coming together because of the person�s passing creates a closing chapter that somehow makes the death seem more real.

Nancy Reagan had the flowers, music, invitation list and other aspects of her funeral planned down to the smallest detail. I'm not sure how her family members felt, but perhaps that level of detail was a relief and comfort to them.

My thoughts on funerals probably would have faded more if another wasn't on the horizon. With Mom having spent so many years on the farm and then more than a decade in Manhattan, we decided to have two celebrations of her life - one in each place - just as we did for Dad. This will give an opportunity for those who couldn't travel to the earlier service to partake in whatever comfort and closure a funeral can confer. But finding a date that will be convenient for those who couldn't attend the earlier service is proving difficult. Some of the dates that might work for those who couldn't attend the earlier one won't work for me.

Since I live in Manhattan, I was the primary planner of the earlier service. And it was barely over when I began working on the second. But after several days of asking for people's schedules and talking with the woman scheduling the use of the church in my hometown, it occurred to me that I was content with the earlier service. It is important that the second service provide the same comfort for those who couldn't attend the earlier one. And so I will tell the others to arrange the details to accommodates their schedules. I will attend if I can and if I cannot, I am fine with that as well.

As the realization that I was quite content with the earlier service struck home, I remembered reading of another service related by minister and author Robert Fulghum in his book, "Uh Oh." Early in his work as a minister, he had volunteered to help a widow spread her husband's ashes over a lake from an airplane. When the time came, the pilot opened the door and Fulghum took the cover off the container and held it outside. But the air rushing by sucked the ashes out of the container and then immediately blew them back into the plane where they swirled about.

Silence followed.

Later, the widow left the airport with a vacuum cleaner bag. It contained what they had been able to recover of her husband. Before departing she said, "This will be funny ... someday!"

The service Fulghum performed certainly did not go as expected, just like so many other things in life. But that wasn't the important thing. The purpose of a funeral and related acts such as spreading of ashes is to provide comfort to the living. Within the widow's parting comment, we hear a hint that it worked for her. Mom's earlier service went well ... and it worked for me!

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