LONDON, ONTARIO - Over the last couple decades, I’ve taken to reading the daily death notices in The London Free Press. It’s a hard habit to form any earlier in life and is less likely to take hold in people who haven’t lived in their community for a long time. You simply won’t know enough of the people whose ends are recorded there (usually, it must be admitted, in less than scintillating prose) to reward any but the most morbidly dry curiosity.
When our kids started moving out of the house and I found that I actually had a few spare minutes in the morning to properly check the pulse of the world, I started dropping in occasionally on the obituaries and now it's become a daily habit. While there sometimes aren't enough to fill a page on weekdays, there's always a real bumper crop for the weekend edition as well as a smattering of birth announcements to offset the gloomy impression that Londoners are about to become extinct.
Sometimes it’s the photographs that draw me in. I’m always attracted to write-ups of anyone pictured in a military uniform, if only because at least one of their life’s chapters so fleetingly recalled will recount an adventure. Though I generally disdain our culture’s fixation on youth, I think a picture of a subject in their glowing prime is more suitable or representative than an all-but-last-minute shot where they’re hooked up with one of those awful respirator nose clips.
I’m also drawn to the write-ups of anyone whose relatives have chosen an informal snap over a more studied pose (I'm a sucker for anything with a blurry Christmas tree, a proudly hoisted bottle of hooch, a prized car or boat or motorbike) or who have listed one of their subjects’ unflattering nicknames like ‘Cheapskate’ or ‘Old Crabby’. Two pictorial trends which I abjure are grieving spouses who include themselves in the photo as well as the departed (sorry, pal, but this isn't about you) or a shot that includes a family pet. Also lamentable are write-ups that strive so hard for originality that they neglect to mention the subject's age or cause of death.
Ordinarily, it’s coming upon a familiar last name that grabs my attention. Through your 50s there’s a tidal wave of parents to be buried, your own and your friends’, and then the real fun begins when the cowled gent with the scythe turns his first attentions to your own generation. I remember in the very busiest stretch of my parents’ generational harvest when they had attended three different funerals in one week, two at the same funeral home, and were mortified when it took them a few seconds to recall who they’d just buried that afternoon. Their brains had become temporarily scrambled with mortality.
There are a couple of funereal trends that I’m seeing more and more of nowadays that I don’t much care for. I was miffed when an old childhood friend died a few years ago and his family placed no death announcement in the paper at all. I had been up to visit him during a hospital stay but upon his release I (incorrectly as it turned out) assumed he was out of danger. While there may have been some sort of private ceremony to mark his passing, details were never disclosed to the public at large and there was no opportunity for me (and I presume many others) to pay their final respects.
As a daily imbiber of obituaries I quite often see notices printed saying that cremation has already taken place and that there will be a private family gathering held at some vague time in the future. These bug me on a couple of fronts. Of course, a full blown funeral isn’t cheap and when there has been no provision left in a will to cover such exigencies, the expense of visitation, interment and perhaps a reception is more than some families can handle. But surely there has to be some middle ground between spending thousands of dollars you don’t have on a ruinously expensive public ceremony and dispensing with any sort of funeral altogether.
I found it wonderfully consoling at my own parents’ funerals to meet with people from their own deep pasts who we would never have thought to invite. Luckily, they saw the notices in the paper and made a point of coming out because it was important to them to do so. Having these people drop by and say a few words fleshed out our understanding of our parents’ lives and the impact they’d had on the world.
I expect that many of the people who opt for private funerals fear that opening the ceremony up to the world at large will somehow increase their sorrow. In my experience, the exact opposite is the case. It actually lightens the load to share it in this way with people you'd forgotten or otherwise hadn't expected to see.
To me there’s a whiff of disrespect and arrogance, a form of control-freakery, in the notion that while so and so may have died this week, we’re going to formally mark his or her passing a few months down the line when we’re feeling a little more composed and the weather’s nicer and junior here doesn’t have to cram for his physics exam and his sister isn’t in rehearsals for the school show.
"I’m looking at the dates here, Mr. Reaper, and Thursday just isn’t going to work. By all means, take Dad now if you absolutely have to but we’re not going to be able to properly acknowledge this until the third weekend in June. Does that work for you?"
It seems to me that something is badly out of whack when death is regarded as just another appointment that you get to pencil into your desk calendar at your earliest convenience. Like birth, death shows up when it bloody well feels like it and one is obliged to wipe the schedule clean and deal with this momentous event while it’s upon you.
Sometimes you hear that it was the wish of the departed that no funeral be held and the children were just following orders. If either of my parents had given such instructions, I don’t think I would’ve complied. As their son and as a Christian it was important to me to uphold the commandment to honour my parents and I don’t believe that proper honour can be paid without some sort of final ceremony.
I feel the same way when someone I love tells me not to bother acknowledging their birthday. Without fail, I affectionately tell them to get stuffed. They’re important to me and there are too few occasions in this culture of ours when we get to express that. Birthdays are one such and funerals are another.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
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