Printed in the Burlington Free Press - March 2008 - Burlington, Vermont
A Checklist for Funerals
Spring is hesitatingly in the air.
In Vermont we are yet to smell the earthy smell of spring, but we have seen robins, we have yet to feel a spring rain, but geese have honked their way into the state. In the fierceness of this bitter winter we hear the hope of spring.
And I reflect upon losses even as I look to new life.
For a life begun can be a life well lived.
And a life ended can still feed the future with memories and love, ideas and inspiration. This past year I was involved in two family deaths – my two brothers in law both passed away. I was the sister unaffected, but rocked to the core. In a very hard time I saw my sisters, and their communities shining bright. I felt so proud for them. They were doing the last thing right, they were ushering out sorrow, years of companionship, honoring their husband’s lives, and they were doing so with care and dignity and love and showing those around them how to do the last thing right.
As my sisters – sometimes blank faced with shock, sometimes sorrowing with comprehension, moved through their grief, I saw that not only the dead husband was honored and received lifetime accolades, but the family and the friends showed that the living spouse was so respected so loved so much a part of her community that all wanted to be there to help her, support her in her grief. And though eulogies were given and good lives recognized the still standing felt a sweep of love and care and good will towards them too. It was not only about the one who died but so much about the concern towards those that still live.
I learned so much at seeing death up close, of how to handle dying and loss to eek dignity out of a painful passing. I saw one sister holding her husband in her arms, and her soothing voice telling him it is OK to just let go.
I saw my mother and brother comforting my younger sister, cocooned in her bed, paralyzed with fear. They were surrounding her with love, absorbing her grief.
I watched and helped and learned and found that even a funeral has a check list. Here is one we made over two funerals for two very loved brothers in law.
First – try not to rush- take the days you need to prepare the funeral you want. Everyday spent together as a family helps with healing and reveals important insights into the help that may be needed in the months ahead. Give yourself a week.
A Website – creating a website is a wonderful way to pay respects to the family, to share stories of the loved one’s life, to see pictures and for friends and family to post their condolences. A tech savvy friend or family member can be the editor to make sure nothing inappropriate is posted. This can stay up for a number of months and people can post thoughts over time. It can be a consolation to the bereaved to go back and read when the shock of loss starts to wear off.
The obituary – the family – or a writer in the family or close friend can create the obituary – interviewing gently different family members to give a full and complete story of life. With a website to post it on – you do not need to worry about the number of words. A smaller obituary can be prepared for the newspaper. One of my sisters chose to put a poem in the newspaper and the obituary on her website.
Cremation or burial. A box is required for both – and funeral directors are very helpful with arrangements, burying and burning, but are not yet stocking suitable boxes for cremation. Both of my sisters wanted something special and appropriate – for one we had a handmade First Nation’s box, and for the other a handmade brass trimmed box made by a jewelry box maker. Both required some fast thinking, phone calls and running around. And that can be a blessing in a time of grief – feeling useful.
[And by the way 8x8x8 is the minimum size Box that you will need.]
Pictures – my family likes crafts and a way for us to be busy was the cutting and pasting of photos of my brother in laws lives – we grouped them by themes, by family and by chronology, and mounted them on poster board for others to see. We also did some quick frame shopping to reframe awards and special pictures to place at the service.
The Hall –for after the service or in place of a religious location, you will need a hall or a home to gather in. It is the job of the family to figure this out; the bereaved will not be up to it. We had both of our events in centers that were lacking in stained glass windows and wooden pulpits – we needed to pretty them up and make them more uplifting and respectful of the loss. We used pretty tablecloths to cover the tables, mounted our photos on walls, cut greenery to place in vases and created a special table for the ashes and personal mementos. Flowers received were placed on tables adding color and acknowledging the gift.
Sound system- Strangely enough – in the absence of a minister, priest or rabbi, a ‘master of ceremonies’ is required.
Line up somebody that is comfortable with the role, and close to the deceased to help organize the different people who want to speak. Arrange a mike, so the most soft spoken or elderly can also be heard. In the case of one of my sisters – one of the ‘speakers’ were musicians and they sang for everybody.
Audio visual. In our case the younger generation organized a repeating slide show that played throughout the service. It was a lot of work but the value in the doing was as important as the viewing. They also handled the website.
Food – Let people help! My sister’s small town community heard the call and knew the family was there and basically provided every meal required. I think that has to be incredibly unusual in these days- but food is certainly needed – so if your community is not so inclined to bring ‘love in a casserole’ somebody will either have to cook or be on the phone ordering food pretty much all of the time. Like the family techie – there may also be a family cook – let everybody share his own abilities.
Food at the Funeral – Again – if people offer – yes is the right word. Otherwise cater something and make sure there is enough to drink for everybody. [You can ask people to bring wine or beer if they ask how they can help. Funerals are expensive and provided food or beverage may be more helpful than flowers.]
Donations or cards – a basket or pretty bowl for cards.
Condolence Book – a good looking guest book for people to sign and leave a message in. This will be looked at later- the bereaved may not even be fully aware of who is at the funeral and will appreciate reading the names later.
What to Wear. With three sisters – this was definitely going to be taken care of – we all arrived with extra outfits – for some reason we wanted our bereaved sister to look smashing, and she wanted to too.
Laughter. The funny thing about death is the response by the human spirit to bubble up and find humor at the worst of times. In all of the grief new memories will be made, old friendships renewed and love replenished. And there will be laughter between tears.